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Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties) Regulations 2011

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2011

Motion to Approve

Moved By

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 27 June be approved.

Relevant document: 26th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

My Lords, I am delighted to be leading this debate and to have the opportunity to explain the Government’s policy regarding the specific duties regulations.

I will first say a little about the equality duty, which these specific duties support. On 5 April this year, the Government brought into force the new public sector equality duty contained in Section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. The duty requires public bodies and those discharging public functions to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and other conduct prohibited by the Act, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not share it. The relevant protected characteristics are age, race, sex, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief, and sexual orientation, and, in relation to eliminating unlawful discrimination and harassment, marriage and civil partnership.

The objective behind the new equality duty, like the previous race, disability and gender equality duties, is to ensure that consideration of equality forms part of the day-to-day decision-making and operational delivery of public bodies. However, the new duty is considerably stronger than those previous duties. As well as extending to all nine protected characteristics, it also sets out in primary legislation for the first time what considering the need to advance equality of opportunity involves. Section 149(3) of the Equality Act 2010 makes clear that in particular it involves considering the need to remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by people who share particular protected characteristics, to take steps to meet their particular needs, and to encourage people who share particular protected characteristics to get involved in public life and other activities where their participation is disproportionately low.

This new strengthened equality duty will be supported by specific duties set out in regulations which we are discussing today. The purpose of the specific duties is to help public bodies carry out the equality duty more effectively. This is a very important point and I want to emphasise it strongly. The equality duty itself, set out in primary legislation, is the key provision. That is already in place, and, as I have explained, it is stronger and broader than the previous duties. The specific duties do not extend, restrict or change the equality duty in any way. They are simply designed to help public bodies to perform the equality duty better as was the intention behind the specific duties which supported the previous race, disability and gender equality duties.

However, having commenced the new stronger equality duty, the Government are putting forward a radical new approach for supporting specific duties. In the past, public bodies tended to get bogged down in detailed, bureaucratic, process-driven requirements such as producing vast equality impact assessments that ticked a box but had no impact on the decisions taken. Our approach is different. We want public bodies to focus on delivering real progress on equality and to be transparent about that so that the public can hold them to account. It is a fundamental shift from bureaucratic accountability for filling in the right forms to democratic accountability for delivering equality improvements for service users. The specific duties that we are proposing, instead of focusing on processes, require public bodies listed in the regulations to publish information to demonstrate their compliance with the equality duty and to set themselves equality objectives. The requirement to publish information to demonstrate compliance with the equality duty is a strong requirement. Compliance with the equality duty is an objective matter, determined by the courts. While there is flexibility in the regulations, each public body must publish information to demonstrate that it is complying with the equality duty. If it does not, the Equality and Human Rights Commission can issue a compliance notice which is also enforceable through the courts.

Case law on the previous duties, which is still relevant, provides useful guidance as to what is required to comply with the equality duty. In brief, public bodies must ensure that they have the right information to hand about equality issues to make informed choices and decisions and to ensure that this is rigorously considered before and at the time decisions are taken. Case law has also made clear that in some cases it will be necessary to consult relevant parties likely to be affected by a decision, such as local disability groups and women's groups. In order to demonstrate their compliance with the equality duty, public bodies will generally need to publish information about what they have concluded will be the effect of their activities on people with different protected characteristics and the information they considered in making their decisions, including those they have consulted and involved.

The regulations give public bodies flexibility to publish the information that they believe best demonstrates their compliance with the equality duty and which is most useful to their staff and service users in holding them to account for their performance on equality. This means that public bodies will be able to publish the information that is right for their particular circumstances. What is right for a small school will be different from what is right for the Department for Education.

We have two stipulations. First, public bodies must include information relating to people who share a relevant protected characteristic who are affected by their policies and practices—their service users. For example, we would expect a local authority to have considered how its provision of social housing affects women who have been victims of domestic violence, or disabled people who have particular access requirements. We would expect the local authority to publish information on this, and to explain how it considered it and whether it took action as a result. Secondly, public bodies with 150 or more staff must publish this information in relation to their employees. For example, we would expect a government department to have considered how its policies affect employees with different protected characteristics, and to publish information such as its gender pay gap and the proportions of staff at different levels who are disabled or from ethnic minorities.

We will ensure that there is sector-specific guidance from the Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to help different types of public body think through what sort of information they should publish. All public bodies listed in Schedule 1 to the regulations must publish this information by no later than 31 January 2012 and at least annually thereafter. Schools listed in Schedule 2 to the regulations must do the same, but by 6 April 2012 and at least annually thereafter. The additional time for schools—a full term—is to help them prepare and implement the new requirements in compliance with the preparation timescales for any regulations on schools recommended by the Merits Committee.

Turning to the specific duty to set equality objectives, each public body listed in the two schedules to the regulations must prepare and publish one or more specific and measurable equality objective. They are required to publish these objectives by no later than 6 April 2012 and at least every four years thereafter.

My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me to finish, he will see that this is exactly what we are doing.

The objectives set out should clearly illustrate the real equality improvements that the public body intends to deliver over the course of the business cycle. They should focus on the key inequalities that the body is in a position to affect, as highlighted in its published information, and identify achievable, measurable improvements. For example, if a local authority’s data show that very few older people access a service from which they might benefit, the authority might set an objective to increase the rate of take-up by a certain percentage within a specified period, to ensure that such services genuinely advance equality of opportunity for all. This requirement to publish equality objectives will help to ensure that the public and the voluntary and community sector organisations understand the key inequalities that public bodies are focusing on tackling and can track progress against these. The Government are commissioning the production of a toolkit to help voluntary and community sector organisations to use transparency delivered by the equality duty to hold public bodies to account for their performance on equality.

The regulations require public bodies, with the sole exception of schools, to publish information in advance of setting their equality objectives. This is to help to ensure that the public and voluntary and community sector organisations have the opportunity to consider the data that will inform the equality objectives that public bodies set themselves. This is a key element of the Government’s policy: to ensure that public bodies are transparent and accountable to the people they serve for delivering real equality improvements that will give people fair chances. I commend these regulations to the House.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

As an amendment to the above Motion, to insert at the end “but that this House regrets that the Regulations seem likely to reinforce the failure of equality law to take proper account of freedom of religion and conscience; and notes that the Regulations appear to burden further the public sector with unnecessary bureaucracy and target-setting and will in effect promote equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity.”

My Lords, in speaking to the amendment in my name, I should make plain what I think is known to most people in the House: I am not a born rebel. The object of the exercise this afternoon is not to ask the House to vote down these regulations. It is an opportunity for all of us to express any concerns that we have about the development of what is loosely called the equality agenda.

None of us wants unfairness and injustice. However, these regulations are not really about unfairness and injustice. They are about the new bureaucratic burden to be placed on local authorities and public authorities, which are already overburdened with red tape, to push forward an equality agenda that has often produced unfairness rather than fairness and injustice rather than justice.

I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, but I have to say that his amendment to the Government’s Motion, with its references to equality analyses, reports on engagement with affected groups, annual reports, et cetera, serves only to highlight the morass into which we would have sunk up to our elbows had we been required to approve regulations in line with what was originally proposed. As it is, I suppose I can thank the Government for planning to have us sink only up to our knees, although I think that is bad enough.

The regulations are, of course, entirely irrelevant to the enormous problems that the country is now facing except for the sad fact that, as the equality agenda has been pushed forward by people with the best intentions, the established values, moral codes stressing the importance of the traditional family, with a man and wife sharing responsibility for the upbringing of children, and the very institution of marriage—as unfortunately was made plain today during Questions—have all been neglected and sometimes almost derided. We have seen some of the consequences of that recently.

I believe that the Government should not have spent the last few months cooking up new regulations. They should have spent the time, first, trying to find a way to mitigate some of the more baleful consequences of the equality agenda, and, secondly, looking for ways to stop public authorities practising gross unfairness in the name of equality law. Noble Lords may remember the following instances: the woman threatened with the sack for being unwilling to perform civil partnership ceremonies even though she had worked for the council before civil partnerships were even invented; the nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient’s recovery; the five year-old girl reprimanded for discussing her faith at school, and her mother, a worker at the school, investigated for professional misconduct because she asked for her friends’ prayers in the matter; the BA employee sent home without pay for wearing a silver cross; the council worker in Wandsworth sacked for suggesting to a terminally ill woman that she should seek help from God; Camden Council almost unbelievably saying that a Roman Catholic group had no right to advertise a meeting with the slogan, “Climate change is a Christian issue”. I am thinking of religious charities which have been finding it harder and harder to get local authority funding, with Brighton and Hove Council withdrawing funding from a residential care home because those running it refused to ask the elderly residents every three months about their sexual orientation. I am thinking of the five Catholic adoption agencies forced to close because of their unwillingness to place children with same-sex couples, although there are very many adoption agencies specifically catering for gay couples and the society’s objections could have been accommodated with no harm to anybody at all.

It is not just people like myself who are outraged by this determination to treat unfairly people who wish to do no more than observe a moral code that, only a few years ago, was accepted as a valid guide to behaviour by the vast majority of people. Even the Equality and Human Rights Commission has complained that the courts and public bodies have failed to recognise that people prevented from expressing their beliefs have suffered discrimination and has said that something ought to be done about it.

Now let us get back to the particulars of the regulations. Noble Lords will be aware that plenty of local authorities already enjoy collecting useless statistics. On 27 August, the papers reported that when people want to borrow a book in Islington, they are asked if they are transgender; in Brent, they are asked whether they are schizophrenic; and in Leicestershire, they are asked whether they are HIV. Is it not strange that while Eric Pickles says that this nonsense has to stop, the Home Secretary is insisting that all local authorities should behave exactly like Islington—because that is exactly what she is doing through the regulations? Is the world going completely mad?

Look at what public authorities will have to do under the regulations. They will have to collect information about people in the community and in their workforce who are disabled, gay, about to change their sex, et cetera, and then demonstrate to the world how they intend to eliminate discrimination against such people. It is hard to see how they can do that except by counting the number of their clients and the number of their employees sharing each of the relevant protected characteristics and, when they find that they do not have enough clients or employees sharing each relevant protected characteristic, setting out to recruit a few more clients or employees to fit into one of the protected groups. How else could they demonstrate, as the regulations require, that they are indeed eliminating discrimination?

The Government say that compliance with the regulations will not cost much—certainly not as much as complying with the current three separate duties with regard to disability, race and sex. Of course, that is complete nonsense because Section 149 extends the coverage of the duty massively to age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, pregnancy, maternity and gender reassignment. More importantly, the Government are careful not to say what will be the total cost of the regulations for more than 27,000 public bodies. It will be enormous. How on earth do the Government reconcile that with their declared intention to cut back on bureaucracy—a point made by my noble friend? How does it fit in with the Prime Minister's red tape challenge, and how can it be squared with his bold declaration that it is about time that we encouraged greater responsibility in society and that that means that we have to trust people and give them the freedom to do the right thing rather than to regulate them? Almost every utterance of the Minister and almost every word of the regulations contradict what I was told after the election was one of the principal aims of this Government.

The regulations will do nothing to ensure that people who do not fit into the neat categories prescribed in equality law have their rights protected. There is nothing to ensure, for instance, that people with religious convictions are allowed to live by them without harassment or worse. Why should it be so difficult to protect such people? If in the darkest days of the war we could allow people the right to conscientious objection, why is it thought necessary to compel those who have deeply held convictions against gay adoption, for instance, to conform or else?

I have great admiration for the Minister. The Government are privileged to have her in their ranks.

I thank my noble friend for allowing me to say a few words. I very much follow what he is saying and I know that we will vote on the issue. Where I am a bit lost is that I do not know how any of us could change the equality law so that it takes proper account of freedom of religion and conscience. His idea is very good, but how would he do it if he was in charge?

I was making the very point that my noble friend touched upon. If at a time of war you can make exceptions for people who have deeply felt religious convictions, why the Dickens can you not do it in peacetime? It is absolutely absurd to say that because you have equality law there must be no exceptions in any case whatever, although by granting such exceptions you will cause no hardship to anyone. That is the whole point about the Catholic adoption societies. How completely cruel it was to say that those societies could not continue in existence when everyone knows perfectly well that if gay couples want to adopt there are 101 other places to which they can go. That is the answer to my noble friend.

I must conclude. I can give my noble friend no comfort. The relevant sections of the Equality Act permit the making of regulations. I must remind noble friends that they do not require regulations to be made telling local authorities how to observe the law. These particular regulations are fit for the dustbin. It would be beneficial for the House today to make the Government sit up and think and to expresses its view with the simple message along the lines that I have suggested; the dustbin is the place for these particular regulations. I beg to move.

My Lords, I, too, ask the Government to undertake a rethink but from a slightly different perspective from the one that has just been laid out by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. The notion of equality duties goes back to the Race Relations Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Acts, all of which have been widely recognised in your Lordships’ House to have conferred real benefits on the groups with whom they deal and on the community in general. They were supported by specific equality duties that required the production and implementation of equality schemes, including the publication of equality information and plans to improve performance in relation to equality. They also contained requirements concerning equality impact assessments and, depending on the Act, to set equality objectives and involve or consult affected groups in the development of schemes or in relation to impact assessments.

The Equality Act 2010 introduced a single public sector equality duty whereby public bodies are under a general duty to have due regard to—to paraphrase—the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not. In January, after much consultation, draft regulations were published that rationalised the system of specific duties. It was proposed that public bodies should be under a duty to publish details of engagement undertaken with affected groups when determining policies and equality objectives, equality analyses undertaken in reaching policy decisions and information considered when undertaking such analysis. While there was some disappointment at the disappearance of the requirement to produce equality schemes, these proposals addressed concerns identified by both groups working to further equality and public authorities, and were generally welcomed as representing a reasonable balance between regulating to reinforce the general equality duty and placing undue burdens on public authorities.

Now, however, in the regulations we have before us today, all but two of these requirements have gone. It is proposed only that the general duty is supported by specific duties to publish at least one specific and measurable equality objective every four years, and publish information annually to demonstrate compliance with the general equality duty. In other words, the duties to publish details of engagement undertaken when determining policies, engagement undertaken when determining equality objectives, equality analyses undertaken in reaching policy decisions, and information considered when undertaking such analyses, are removed completely. It is hard to understand the reason for the Government’s change of heart, unless it is deregulation for deregulation’s sake regardless of the merits of the regulations in question, for not only the advocates of equality legislation but a significant number of public authorities have expressed their support for strong specific duties as providing a useful framework for helping public authorities comply with their duties under the Equality Act.

This change of direction also comes at a very late stage, after guidance has already been issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, reflecting what were assumed to be the Government’s final thoughts on the specific duties regulations. There is now an inevitable gap between the coming into force of the general duty on 5 April and the implementation of the specific duties after an extended period of consultation on them. Public bodies will still be subject to the general duty, and the absence of the specific duties can only create uncertainty as to how they should go about meeting their obligations. According to these regulations, the great majority of public bodies must publish information to demonstrate their compliance with their general duty by 31 January next. That does not give a lot of time. Will the Minister tell us how the Government propose to get over that difficulty? “Make the best of a bad job” is what I suspect she will say. “Admit it’s a shambles” if she is honest. What sort of Government is this? No better than the last lot, if you ask me.

I have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, has had to say. I am no more in favour than anyone else of making public authorities jump through the hoops of political correctness that he has excoriated so comprehensively, but these regulations are really not fit for purpose—indeed, for the Government’s own purpose. The specific duties spell out the implications of the general duty and help authorities to understand what is required of them. This helps to protect them against legal challenge. As these regulations stand, the specific duties do not reflect the extent of the obligations imposed by the general duty, and will therefore fail in their main purpose of achieving better performance of the general duty. The Government’s principal motivation seems to be the minimising of duties, and not the maximising of benefits—of improved equality of opportunity. This is a vital prerequisite for realising, for instance, the Government’s ambition to get more disabled people into work, and is surely not something to be reining back on at a time when a sense of alienation and social exclusion are disfiguring our society and erupting in social unrest.

This is not just special pleading. There is a wealth of research to show that the specific duties as traditionally conceived have been widely welcomed as having a beneficial impact. There is too much to summarise adequately here, but to give a flavour: in some Disability Rights Commission research, interviewees indicated that disability equality had assumed greater priority in their departments, and reported improvements in the involvement of disabled people, evidence of disability equality, and of meeting wider organisational objectives. Some research in 2007 found that equality issues were accorded higher priority and were increasingly mainstreamed. Practitioners were said to be particularly enthusiastic about the impact of the public sector duty in encouraging consultation and the ongoing involvement of disabled people.

The Government’s own Equalities Office commissioned research to identify which aspects of the specific duties were believed to be effective. It concluded that the specific equality duties were widely accepted, with the majority of authorities across all sectors viewing the requirements of data collection, planning, involvement and impact assessment as effective. Of 174 respondents, more than half rated the specific duties very effective or effective, leading to positive outcomes.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also commissioned research to identify the elements of the specific duties that were most effective in achieving change. Equality schemes and equality impact assessments were said to provide a framework and focus for action. While some participants felt that in some cases implementing the specific duties might be perceived as overly bureaucratic, nevertheless the research states that the vast majority were clear that implementing the specific duties has been fundamental in improving services.

In some other research commissioned by the EHRC, 77 per cent of schools said that their work to meet the disability equality duty had a positive, measurable impact on disabled pupils. This is the only research to have investigated the impact of the Secretary of State’s specific duty to report on disability across each sector. It was found to have created a significant shift in central government’s understanding of and response to disability equality.

“Not only has it raised the awareness of key issues across departments”,

the report says,

“but it has also helped to clarify the importance of integrating and mainstreaming the agenda in all central government activities”.

Perhaps I may say a word about what is still in and what is left out. The policy review leading up to these regulations suggests that all but two requirements—to publish information and to set equality objectives—can be eliminated on the ground that compliance with the general duty presumes the other requirements. It is clear that the general duty cannot be met without assessing the impact of policies on equality or involving those affected at an early stage in policy-making, and this is certainly the way in which the courts have interpreted it. However, this overlooks the role that the specific duties play in providing public bodies with a framework which, if they work within it, provides vital guidance on how to comply with the general duty.

That is particularly true of the requirement to involve or engage with those affected by action on equality. In the case of disability, public bodies have benefited greatly from such involvement, which has helped them to ensure that the policies they put in place and the services they provide reflect the real needs and experiences of disabled people. In their analysis of responses to the consultation—more than 60 per cent of them from public authorities—the Government acknowledge that, despite the fact that no questions on engagement were raised in the consultation, around a third of respondents raised a concern about the lack of any requirement for public authorities to engage with or involve relevant groups. Nor is it possible to rely on guidance within the codes of practice. As the EHRC has said:

“Where the regulations fail to impose specific obligations, the Codes of Practice cannot do so. The Codes must elaborate on the requirements of the legislation, not add to those requirements”.

The requirement to publish at least one equality objective every four years is particularly risible. This runs the risk that authorities will think that setting just one equality objective every four years discharges their duty with regard to equality. It is extremely unlikely that a public body could satisfy all the three elements of the general duty while taking such a minimalist approach. The regulations should make it clear that the objectives that a public body selects must be across the full scope of the duty. Stripped-down regulations will encourage only minimum compliance, not best practice, especially at a time of economic stringency.

There is some consolation in the fact that the Government have undertaken to carry out a review of these regulations after two years. However, I would welcome the Minister’s assurance that the review will be broad in scope, assessing the extent to which the specific duties have supported better performance of the equality duty in general and not just those aspects covered by the narrow specific duties that we have in these regulations. Will the Government use the review to assess whether there has been progress from the situation that obtained under the old regime of specific duties or whether things have slipped back, and whether they will strengthen the regulations if it is found that things have slipped back? Also, will the review assess how far public bodies have been engaging with those affected by their decisions in the absence of a specific requirement to do so?

Finally, I would welcome a clarification from the Minister of the process that will be adopted for the conduct of the review. Will it be informed by the experience of those most affected as to how effective the duties have proved to be as a means of holding public bodies to account? This would seem to be essential, given that the Government’s stated intention in designing the regulations in the way that they have is to achieve greater accountability on the part of public authorities.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Waddington on moving this amendment and on the moderate and thoughtful manner in which he moved it, giving examples of situations widely ridiculed at the time. It is not a fatal amendment. I wish that it was. I would like to get rid of the regulations.

I am going to clarify my position on the issue in the form of a confession. Some 40 years ago in the other place I was the sponsor of two separate pieces of anti-discrimination legislation. However, it was made clear at the time that these were not in favour of positive discrimination, which is a very different matter. I therefore oppose the regulations on a number of specific grounds. The objective of the regulations is absolutely right if the intention is to prevent victimisation, but it is not right because it is not about equality. It is about inequality of opportunity because it requires a protective element for some but not for others who may in fact be best suited for the job. They are not to be considered equally. They are to be considered after the protected characteristic groups. These groups are very wide and very varied, giving special protection to a wide and varied group. That is positive discrimination, which is neither fair nor equal in regulations stemming from what is the so-called Equality Act.

I emphasise my support for the stated object, that anybody should be given a chance, whatever protected characteristic they may have, as long as they can do the job better than or at least as well as other applicants who do not comply with these characteristics. There is always a chance that some bright young body might claim to have one of these characteristics in order to be considered for the job more favourably. This would only enhance the unfairness. We can only imagine how much these requirements are going to cost local authorities and their ratepayers to enact. How much additional staff will be needed? What burdens will be placed on staff who are already there? How are they to represent their reasons for not employing an able applicant who does not meet the requirements in the regulations but is after all the best person for the job?

The regulations under the Equality Act’s Explanatory Memorandum 10/4 states that this new version, presented to your Lordships’ House today, initiates various savings compared with the previous regulations of up to £205 million over 10 years. That would probably be the cost over the same period of the adoption of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Low, if it was accepted. All of us care about the fairness with which people are treated and given jobs and about human rights, but then we look at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which cost £70 million to set up, was recently condemned by the National Audit Office for not presenting its accounts in an acceptable manner and recently squandered more than £800,000 on a website that did not work. Is this the sort of pattern we wish to impose on local authorities? Again, I emphasise that no one wants to condone unfair discrimination in any walk of life. However, I am not at all sure that these regulations will not lead to discrimination that is more unfair than the very discrimination they seek to prevent.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for tabling this amendment and for the work he has done in this area for many years now. I join him in expressing deep concern about what has happened to those five Catholic adoption agencies. The previous Government and this Government are well aware that voluntary adoption agencies have the best outcomes for children. They provide the best stability and the longer term support for those children and their families to see that those children do well. It is a matter of very great regret that those five agencies have closed. Will the Minister assure me that the guidance makes clear that the principles in the Children Act 1989 and the Children Act 2004 are paramount, that the interests of the child are paramount and that where it is considered that it is in the best interests of children not to be placed with same-sex couples, agencies can do so? I believe it is a perfectly tenable position. I have worked in this House on child welfare for 12 years now and, in my view, it is not generally in the child’s best interests to be placed in that situation. I may be wrong in that view, but there are many professionals who share it. It is not proven that it is safe or in the best interests of children to place them in such settings. I think Professor Golombok—I hope I have her name correctly—has done the most work in this area, but she looks only to the age of 18 and the sample of families examined is quite small. I should be most grateful to the Minister if she could assure me that the guidance will be clear about the paramountcy of the welfare of children, about agencies’ ability to decide where that interest lies and that we will not be seeing a repeat of what happened with those five Catholic adoption agencies.

My Lords, I should declare a couple of interests before I say anything. First, I was the architect of a Private Member's Bill on equality that went through this House and became a kind of model for what came later. Secondly, I am counsel to the National Secular Society in the intervention in the pending Strasbourg proceedings and, therefore, will not say anything about the cases that have been placed before the European Court of Human Rights. Thirdly, I am so old that I can remember listening for the past 40 years to the arguments I heard just now basically attacking equality legislation root and branch and suggesting it should be consigned to the dustbin.

The most useful way in which I can assist the House is to begin by explaining a bit more about the framework within which this debate takes place as that might throw some light on what we are talking about. The previous Government, with all-party support—I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in particular for having led the Government at the time on this issue in this House—were responsible for introducing Section 149 of the Equality Act, which is the public sector equality duty. That duty was already in our law in relation to gender, ethnicity and disability, but it was strengthened in important respects by the previous Government with support from all three main parties right across the House. The duty requires every public authority in the exercise of its functions to have due regard to three things: first, to eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and other conduct which is prohibited; secondly, to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not; and, thirdly, to foster good relations between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and others.

The duty covers various grounds, including religion or belief. I assume that even the staunchest opponents of the legislation are pleased that discrimination on grounds of religion and belief is covered. I say with all respect that it has nothing to do with positive discrimination, which is dealt with in a limited form by a completely different provision. It imposes a general public sector duty. There are particular problems about the way in which the duty treats religion and belief in the same way as the other protected characteristics. Some would argue, and I would be one of them, that religion is too strongly protected in the legislation, but we really need not go into that today.

The Explanatory Notes on the Equality Act make it clear that a whole range of religions, including Catholicism, Protestantism, Liberal Judaism, Orthodox Judaism and various forms of Islam, are to be looked at individually and separately if there is an allegation of discrimination. That is the framework. The power being exercised under the regulations is to give better governance in complying with that general duty. Complaints about the Act itself were settled by the previous Parliament when it enacted the legislation.

Where I part company with the noble Lord, Lord Low, with whom I hate ever to disagree, is in believing that his amendment—I have already had the advantage of speaking to him about it—is a real example of overregulation of the worst kind. The best way in which I can illustrate that is by giving just one example, that of religion. Under the general duty, every public authority has to have due regard to the three things that I mentioned. The first thing that an authority has to do under the law is to identify within its area various religious, irreligious, non-religious and atheistic groups. Then it has to decide whether something needs to be done in order to tackle inequality, discrimination and so on with regard to those groups. The regulations strip down the core needs to ensure compliance with the general duty in a well targeted and sensible way. They state that each public authority must publish information to demonstrate its compliance with the Section 149 duty, which is quite right and entirely sensible. They further state that the information has to include information relating to persons who share a relevant protected characteristic, which they define—perfectly sensible. The third thing that the authority must do is prepare and publish one or more objectives that it thinks will achieve the things that I have already mentioned. Again, that is perfectly sensible. Then they say that the objective must be “specific and measurable” —again entirely sensible.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Low, would add that each public authority in the country must,

“publish information on equality analyses they have undertaken … set objectives designed to facilitate compliance with the General Equality Duty … publish information about the engagement they have had with affected groups when developing these objectives and … report annually on progress towards meeting these objectives”.

I do not wish to be unmannerly in saying that it reads a bit Soviet—

I should be most grateful if my noble friend would tell the House exactly what the general duty is and how it differs from the duty in Section 149.

The general duty is in Section 149 and I have already said what it covers. I obviously did not do it very well, but that is where the general duty is. I was trying to explain that these extra obligations, on every public authority, really are an example, in my view, of overregulation. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington—who does not like the legislation, and has always made that absolutely clear, with the reasons given again and again in previous debates—rightly says that he is against overregulation. He referred to the Red Tape Challenge. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong but my understanding is that the Red Tape Challenge, which asked the public what they thought about the regulation under the Equality Act, disclosed that about 95 per cent of respondents expressed overwhelming support for the scheme that he dislikes so much, and the remaining 5 per cent included some who wanted it to go further. If one takes any regard of public consultation, that is a vote of confidence in the scheme, however much the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and those around him may dislike it. One is entitled to take account of that since the Government did so. I am totally opposed to overregulation, and I want just to give one example of what worries me when a body such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission has responsibility for monitoring.

In my professional capacity I was consulted by the Commission for Racial Equality about a scheme involving Crossrail. The question was whether digging a large hole in the ground in a particular part of London would be directly or indirectly racially discriminatory against people of Bangladeshi origin, and therefore whether the whole scheme might have to be stopped as a result. It seemed to me, if I may say so, a strange thing to ask me to advise on, but that is what happens in life. I then called for the race equality impact assessments that would have been made and were relevant to this under the previous legislation. I discovered that there were 100 pages from the Department of Transport, separate submissions by each of the three London boroughs affected, a separate submission by the Mayor of London and a separate one from Transport for London. One had this bulky mountain of paper, none of which had ever been read by the monitoring agency, in a cupboard that no one had ever opened. That seemed to me to be an example of creating paper mountains through overregulation of a completely pointless kind.

When I was constructing my own Private Member’s Bill it was impressed on me by people from Northern Ireland who had great experience in monitoring that one must go for targeted monitoring by a body that is capable of doing the job. I do not think that the Equality and Human Rights Commission at the moment is capable of doing the job. It requires a great deal of professional expertise which is lacking and is very difficult to do. I therefore welcome the fact that the Government have sensibly produced specific duties that are capable of being carried out and have said that we will treat it as an experiment for two years, at the end of which we will suck it and see whether we need more or less regulation. That seems entirely desirable. Therefore, I could not possibly support the noble Lord, Lord Low, if he were to divide the House, which I hope he will not.

As for the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, when the Equality Bill was going through Parliament, as the Explanatory Notes make clear, the right to freedom of religion was specifically taken into account, as was freedom of conscience. My view is that there is nothing whatever in that Act, or in the way it has been interpreted by the courts or, in my judgment, in Strasbourg, that infringes on freedom of religion or freedom of conscience. I do not refer to the way in which it has been interpreted by the Daily Mail or in stupid reactions by ignorant people, or others. There are cases pending in Strasbourg.

Is the noble Lord concerned for one moment with the way in which it has been interpreted by public authorities? That is the point.

I am deeply concerned about that. As the noble Lord, Lord Low, said, I am deeply concerned about ridiculous political correctness, with the rubbish about how you must not mention Christmas or Christmas lights, and so on. The same is true of the Human Rights Act; day after day, you read ridiculous examples that do not represent the law of the land. All that I am talking about is the law of the land, not misinterpretations of the law of the land; there is nothing wrong with the law of the land as it stands, but there is everything wrong with mischievous misinterpretations outside or sheer ignorance. But we are not here to pass judgment on the basis of ignorance or anything of that kind; we are here to approve some sensible regulations, narrowly and clearly targeted to carry out the general duty, which was passed by the previous Government with the support of all parties. Therefore, I hope that we can do so soon.

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend the Minister for not asking her this question before she sat down in order that her officials would have time to prepare the answer. What is the cost of all this, not just in some gross sum of money but in terms of how many care assistants employed by local authorities will have to be made redundant to finance it? I have a feeling that there would be a greater contribution to human happiness and to the benefit of disabled and elderly people, who are protected categories, were the care assistants to be kept in work and these regulations to be junked. No doubt the figures will be provided before the end of this debate, with the customary efficiency of our Civil Service.

I remember when the Equality Bill was brought before this House at Second Reading and the spokesman for my party—we were then in opposition—started her speech with the words, “We on these Benches support this Bill”, and was greeted with something of a pantomime chorus behind her, crying, “Oh no we don’t!”.

Let me make it very clear that I do not like this Act. Of course, there are elements of it that are very helpful, not least the consolidation of much of the previous legislation concerning disability. It brings it all together, and that is very helpful. So I would not just repeal it like that—I would want to keep some parts of it. Unfortunately, primary legislation that is itself misconceived spawns very bad and misconceived secondary legislation. That is what we are now facing.

The whole of this is misconceived, in my opinion, because of its confusion of equality and sameness, and its frequent confusion between rights and entitlements—one day, I hope we might have a debate in this House entirely on the matter of the distinction which should be drawn between rights and entitlements—and that of course is leaving out its failure to understand that on many occasions, and in many ways, effective and efficient administration, which is in the interest of all of us, even the protected categories in this Act, should have priority over the duties set out in Section 149(1) of the Act.

However, we look at the Act now as it is. My noble friend Lord Waddington gave some of the examples of the way in which the Act has spawned action by Government and local government which is profoundly harmful, not least, as has been referred to, in the matter of adoption societies, and the discrimination against some religions. Not all religions, of course: it would be a bold local authority that would discriminate against, let us say, the Islamic religion. That would be a step too far; but of course Christians are easy meat, as we see day by day.

Is the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, aware that it would be unlawful to discriminate against any particular religion under the Act that he slights?

Yes indeed, but I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, does not deny the truth of what my noble friend Lord Waddington said, and the way in which he described the discrimination which is brought against people who believe in a particular religion, that is, the Christian religion. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Lester, would probably want to have a group of original Mormons on a committee in a local authority which was considering matters of divorce, or marriage, or something of that sort. The point is that once we start trying to get down into these details, instead of relying upon the decent conduct of decent people, elected to office democratically in local authorities and responsible to their electorates, we find ourselves in a morass; indeed, not merely a morass, but an expensive and a contradictory morass. I think that we need to look at all this again, preferably with a basic reform of the Act. I know that that is not on offer right now. However, as my noble friend Lord Waddington was saying, the Act does not require that these regulations be placed before us, and it does not require that they should be passed. I think that it would be a very great benefit to mankind in general if they were not and, in particular, I think it would be of a very great benefit if the amendment of my noble friend Lord Waddington were to be accepted this evening as a warning shot across the bows of this Government. In the words of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, it does not seem that this Government are much better than their predecessor.

My Lords, this debate has reached the point where the comments I wanted to make would be repetitious, so I shall be very brief in supporting the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. The noble Lord has given this House the opportunity today to make its views known on a number of issues which have been highlighted and which have been mentioned again. I am not concerned with the legal interpretations of things, because that is not what the people outside this House are on about: they are concerned about the drift in our society that seems to favour one group against another. As I say, there have been long explanations by the movers of the two Motions. However, I compliment the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, on the comprehensive way in which he put the view not just of Members of this House but of countless thousands—probably millions—of ordinary folk in this country who think some things are wrong. He has illustrated some of them today and many other Members can find examples of such things leading us into difficulties.

We have this one world. We have a freedom of expression. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is just as keen on freedom of religion and conscience in other parts of the world, as I have had the privilege of working with him on a number of occasions. All I can say today is that we have the opportunity, thanks to his Motion, to say, “We have gone far enough; let the Government understand that we are not prepared, as a nation, to let this thing drift on and on”. I hope that if the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, divides this House, he will appreciate my support in following him through the Lobbies.

My Lords, the purpose today is to consider some reasoned opinions as to what should be done in a highly distraught situation. It has not been substantially debated as yet but it is time that we gave it time. I hope today not to divide but to consider what has been said. I am grateful to my noble friend, with whom I do not totally agree, and to the noble Lord, Lord Lester—with whom I seldom agree, but we disagree in amity—for what he has said, with which I do not agree at all for two reasons.

First, this is a question of religious freedom, putting it simply—the concept of it and the implementation of it. There are, inevitably, such matters as adoption agencies but it is wider than that and it applies to all religions. We are still a member of the EU, and those member states with written constitutions defend in them exactly the type of religious freedoms which we are discussing. Because they are defended in that way in those constitutions, they are not within the remit of any of the EU courts. We do not have a constitution and if we want to get out of the trap there is actually only one way, which has not yet been considered. That is why I am so grateful to my noble friend.

If we have a constitution Bill which makes the appropriate provision akin to those of others in the Union and it is approved by our Supreme Court—which now is, in effect, a constitutional court—we are home. Nobody has considered that but if you do not do it that way, you cannot do it at all. It is no use saying, “Oh, we will make statutes. We will do this, we will do that”. This was explained perfectly clearly. I took up the point with my noble friend Lord Pilkington after the debate, in our usual conversations which we had in a little room not far from here. He said, “Well, I had better find out a bit about this. I had a brilliant pupil who is now at the Bar—somebody called Armitage. I am going to ask him to send me an opinion”. I had never met Armitage. In fact he is a brilliant man, a first rate-lawyer, totally objective, and not in any way involved in politics. He wrote an opinion and I am talking to the effect of his opinion, which was my opinion too. My noble friend gave me a copy of the opinion and I am afraid I have lost it, but it is very important that it should be found, and perhaps Armitage could provide a copy.

This one short point has never been taken and never been understood. Unless you get a constitutional position, our courts will have to accept that they cannot be excluded from the European laws—putting it broadly—with which we are bound at the moment.

That was also in a sense explained by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, in his article in the Times after the debate, in which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester took one view, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford took the other view, and my noble friend Lord Waddington was concerned.

My Lords, I do hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord, but there are a number of people I know want to speak, and if he could wind up it would help the House in its deliberations. I do apologise to the noble Lord for raising it in this way.

I have to say I could not quite hear what my noble friend was saying. If I have done anything wrong, I apologise. Should I shut up?

I have, save for one point. This question of freedom of religion was raised as an amendment to the Human Rights Act, and it was supported by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, another noble Lord and Lord Jakobovits. Within a very short time it was opposed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, and withdrawn because of a message from Lambeth House indicating that it thought it could make some appropriate arrangement. Well, it was never done, and that remains at the base of this problem. Of course, if the amendment had been accepted, we would not be in this position and could have taken steps then.

My Lords, it was not my intention to participate in this debate. However, as a result of listening to the comments of many noble Lords, I am driven to say a few things. Recently we had riots on the streets of Britain, and as a result there has been a lot of heart-searching about why people participate in this exercise—some for criminal reasons, some for other reasons. No one really knows why, and there will be some investigation into that. However, it strikes me that the pendulum of secularism and political correctness has swung too far. Consequently, we need to bring it back a bit. The way in which that can be done is by instilling more Christian standards and morality in our society.

These regulations discriminate against religious bodies, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. People who wear necklaces with a cross on, as I do, will be discriminated against, and that is wrong; people are entitled to have religious freedom and should not be discriminated against for that. I shall support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, today if he puts it to a vote.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Waddington’s amendment would not prevent the passing of these regulations. It is an amendment that regrets a certain result from the present situation; that is all. That is well expressed in a press release that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission issued on 11 August. It applied for leave to intervene in the cases to which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred. It said then:

“If given leave to intervene, the Commission will argue that the way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief”.

The commission has withdrawn that as a result of representations made to it, which does not entirely increase my confidence in its independence, but that is what it said originally. That is really what my noble friend’s amendment expresses; it seeks not to change what the regulations are proposing but simply to express a concern that may be taken into account in whatever emerges in future.

My Lords, I rise to express concern about the draft regulations being moved by the Minister, to speak against the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that I speak as someone who is proudly married—for 31 years today—but who strongly supports the Equality Act and the regulations that flow from it. I am proud of the Act and of the fact that those on all Benches in this House supported it when it was a Bill in this House.

The duties that we are discussing today are critical in delivering the public sector equality duty that is enshrined in the Equality Act 2010 to provide better all-round services to the community and all its diverse members. The purpose of the duties was explained carefully by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Contrary to the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and others, I believe that as a result of three rounds of consultation the duties appear to have been watered down and therefore fail to deliver the main objective to ensure the better performance of the general duty by public bodies. It is difficult to understand how a single objective can enable a public authority to meet the range of its equality duties, and I would be grateful if the Minister could explain this point more fully.

As noble Lords will recall, the Equality Act 2010 brought together existing equalities legislation, with its specific equality duties, and added additional equalities-specific protected characteristics, as the Minister explained. Concern was expressed at the time that the new duties would be less robust, and I think this is precisely what has happened. The regulations before us are a step back from the level of specific equality duties that public authorities are currently used to under provisions on race, gender and disabilities. Yet there is evidence that the existing specific duties, which are more specific than those that we are being asked to approve today, have been useful in assisting public bodies to make progress with equality. The noble Lord, Lord Low, has given tangible examples of the ways in which specific equality duties are being used to improve outcomes, both for disabled people and school pupils, and as we have heard, positive outcomes for pupils include better access to facilities, feeling valued, developing higher aspirations, and narrowing gaps in performance and participation in sport.

In the wake of the disturbances this August, I suggest that these outcomes have become more, rather than less, important. The purpose of specific duties is to give proper guidance to public bodies whose main job is often not about equality but rather about healthcare, education, recreation, et cetera, but all these bodies want to improve the delivery of their services in a way that has equal outcomes for all. I must say to the noble Lord that I am not saying sameness for all, but equal outcomes, which is a very different thing. Despite the Minister’s assurances—

My Lords, it was the noble Baroness’s Government who decreed that the upper ranks of the Civil Service should be representative of the community that it serves. I take it from the way she nods that that is her view. Surely we do not want 15 per cent of near illiterates and 10 per cent of near innumerates in the higher ranks of the Civil Service? Should we not have a more subtle way of deciding these things than passing over able candidates in favour of less able ones, for the first time since the 19th century?

My Lords, I do not think that the Act suggested that people should be appointed if they are not properly qualified, or that the best person for the job should not have it. The Act said that there should be equal opportunities, so that whether you are black, white, disabled, yellow, orange, gay, lesbian, or heterosexual, you should have equality of opportunity, and the best—

My Lords, the Act refers specifically to protected definitions of people. The very word “protected” means that they are going to be treated more equally than others.

No, my Lords. It defines certain disadvantages, but it does not mean to say that some people are more equal than others. We are not in an Animal Farm situation. We are saying that every individual has their intrinsic worth as a human being, and that they should be treated in an equal manner and given equality of opportunity. That is what I believe we are all—or most of us—agreed upon in this Chamber.

My Lords, the word “protected” simply means those protected against discrimination in those categories. However, it seems to me that the noble Baroness was giving a very narrow interpretation, which may be why she agrees with the noble Lord, Lord Low. May I try to say what I think the regulations mean? Regulation 3 says that each public authority,

“must prepare and publish one or more objectives it thinks it should achieve to do any of the things mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (c)”,

but that does not mean, in my judgment—no doubt the Minister will want to respond to this—that if they publish only one objective, that is sufficient.

With the greatest respect, the noble Lord is doing more than making an intervention; he is making another speech.

I do not think I know the difference, since I am asking a question. The question that I am asking, if I may be permitted to do so, is whether the Minister—

I am so sorry. I meant to ask whether the noble Baroness, looking at the wording, accepts that there would be a judicial review, or something worse, if one were simply to do what she suggests.

My Lords, these are questions for the Minister. I am just putting my views as the spokesperson for the Opposition. I go back to what I was going to say, about transparency. The Government rightly stress the need for transparency and accountability. However, it is difficult to understand how these can be enhanced when the public and public sector employees will not be able to compare the equality performance of similar bodies because the information will not always relate to the same issues or be measured in a standard way. Access to data is crucial, but it is difficult to interpret those data if they are not given in a standard way. Therefore, it will be more difficult for public authorities and those they serve to discover and understand what good practice is. There is a possibility that there will be a new postcode lottery. The Government have failed to provide clarity with these regulations. It could well be that the burden on public bodies will increase in some way. As the Council for Disabled Children says in its excellent briefing,

“the requirements should be clear to all public bodies who are required to comply with the specific duties. This purpose is better served by making these requirements explicit in the Regulations rather than leaving public bodies open to challenge because ‘implicit’ requirements have not been made clear to them”.

I have to say that I fundamentally disagree with the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in relation both to freedom of religion and conscience and to burdens and bureaucracy. I must also disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, who is in many ways my noble friend. During the passage of the Equality Bill we debated these issues long and hard and they were subject, as he rightly said, to amendments. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was wrong when he made the arguments at that time and he is wrong now. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for pointing out the difference between the law of the land, which I believe is correct, and mischievous misinterpretations of that law, of which there are undoubtedly many. While I respect that around this Chamber we have different views, I am concerned that perhaps some of the voices opposite are those of the modern Conservative Party. I know that some on my Benches will disagree with me on that.

When we debated the Equality Bill, there was wide agreement on all Benches that the Bill—now the Act—was the right way to address discrimination and advance equality of opportunity in our tolerant British society. I believe that that is still the case. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, says that specific regulations would be a burden on the public sector. However, I remind him that good regulations serve an important purpose. In this case it is to ensure that systematic inequalities can be challenged so that all members of our society can live and flourish without discrimination. The noble Lord dismisses the importance of equality of outcomes, whereas I suggest that outcomes and opportunity are equally important.

The noble Lord, Lord Low, is right to stress the need for the general equality duty to produce tangible and positive outcomes. I fear that the regulations have been weakened to such an extent that the outcomes will be neither tangible nor positive. In the other place, the Minister made a commitment to review the duties in two years’ time. That is very welcome, but I ask the Minister to confirm that such a review will take place and to provide further information about a timetable for it. How will the evidence be gathered? Will the review be based on progress towards the aims set out in the general duty, rather than simply on the aspects covered by the specific duties, and will it be public? I also ask the noble Baroness for a clear commitment that the specific duties will be amended if the review reveals that public bodies have not made sufficient progress in eliminating discrimination and advancing equality of opportunity.

The equality duty should be one of the most effective ways of combating institutional discrimination and putting the public sector at the forefront of efforts to secure equality. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said, in this seemingly fractured society I believe that issues relating to equality and discrimination have assumed greater importance and that regulations to define the specific duties are vital to delivering the general equality duty. As I said earlier, I would be very happy to support the noble Lord, Lord Low, should he wish to vote on his amendment.

My Lords, I will deal with the points raised by my noble friend Lord Waddington and the noble Lord, Lord Low, separately, but I will begin by dealing with my noble friend’s amendment. I recognise that he speaks with passion and that he has been consistent in his arguments. I stand here as somebody who may not be absolutely in tune with everything on the subject of equality, but I do know the outcomes of discrimination and inequality. I think, therefore, that what we are doing here today is helping to address those issues. While there may be Members among my noble friends behind me who think that we have gone too far, I say to them: ask the people who do not have access to those opportunities and you may get responses that are difficult to take if you have never had to undergo such discrimination yourselves.

My noble friend has made clear his concerns about the issue of religious freedom.

In her description of access, has the Minister taken into account the fact that the Government’s own cuts in legal aid will prevent people with those protected characteristics from enforcing their rights? They represent a savage onslaught on protected characteristics and access to justice.

My Lords, I will continue with my notes. My noble friend has made clear his concerns about the issue of religious freedom and its relationship with equality law. The Government are committed to striking a fair balance between religious freedom of expression and the rights of people not to be discriminated against whether at work or at school and when buying goods or using services. A fair balance is what the Equality Act 2010, and the legislation it replaced, achieves. I know that my noble friends and others would agree with that. The Act provides protection from discrimination because of religion or belief. It is drafted carefully to ensure that people are protected from being discriminated against but different treatment is permitted where this is justified—for example, because it is necessary to protect religious freedom of expression.

In addition, in service delivery, non-commercial religious organisations are permitted to restrict the provision of services because of religion or belief, or because of sexual orientation in some circumstances, but discrimination because of sexual orientation is not permitted when a religious organisation is providing services on behalf of a public authority. Where a policy or practice has an adverse effect on people of a particular religion, it is permitted only where it can be objectively justified. As you can see, the legislation has been framed carefully to ensure that religious organisations can act in line with their doctrine while ensuring that people are protected from being subjected to discrimination and harassment because of their sex or sexual orientation, for example. However, for commercial businesses the position is different. In practice, this means that someone who runs a business or provides a service to the public can of course hold and express their religious beliefs, whatever those may be. However, the right to manifest religion or belief may properly be limited in certain circumstances, including where it interferes with the rights of others. The Government are clear that these measures strike a fair balance between religious freedom of expression and the rights of people not to be discriminated against. Thus the Equality Act 2010 delivers a level playing field rather than a hierarchy of rights.

The equality duty covers the protected characteristic of religion or belief. This is only right. Had it not been included, there would have been a hierarchy of discrimination whereby discrimination and disadvantage suffered because of religious beliefs would effectively have been deemed less important than discrimination and disadvantage because of gender or race, for example. Indeed, it would have been more complex than that, as Jews and Sikhs would have been covered—as they are covered by the race aspect of the duty—but Christians, Muslims and Humanists would not.

Indeed, the equality duty now covers all the protected characteristics and provides the legal framework for considering how decisions affect all groups and, where necessary, how different needs can be balanced. The specific duties which we are discussing today will help to ensure that public bodies do that balancing correctly.

It is the custom in parliamentary debates for Ministers to respond to debates. Does the noble Baroness intend to reply to the debate and individual points made by Members?

If the noble Lord were patient he would know that the points I am making relate to the points raised, and I will also directly reply to points raised by noble Lords.

The specific duties we are discussing today will ensure that public duties do that balancing correctly. They will open up the decision-making and performance of public bodies to scrutiny. If people think that their religious freedoms and beliefs are being overlooked by public bodies, or that people of their religion are being treated unfairly, they will be able to look at the equality information that public bodies will be required to publish and to hold them to account. They will also be able to question a public body if they feel that the organisation is inappropriately advancing the interest of one religious group over another. Relevant data will be in the public domain for them to check.

On the issue of costs, it is simply not the case that the regulations will unnecessarily burden the public sector. On the contrary, they are designed to help public bodies comply with the equality duty and, by harmonising the three previous equality duties on race, gender and disability into a single duty and making the new single equality duty less bureaucratic and more straightforward to comply with, we are delivering long-term savings for the public sector. We estimate that the compared costs of complying with the previous duties and with the new single equality duty and the new specific duties will result in a net benefit to the public sector of £11 million in year one and about £19 million a year from year two onwards. That will deliver public services which are better tailored to the different needs of service users, which is what the equality duty is designed to do. We will also save public bodies money in the long run.

Perhaps I may interrupt my noble friend for a moment as one who intended to make a speech but was unable to do so because the noble Baroness got up too quickly. Does my noble friend agree that it is in fact impossible to have equality between people? You can have equalities of opportunity for people to use, but you cannot possibly say that two people are equal.

My noble friend is right, but it is about ensuring that there are those equalities of opportunity. That is what the regulations lay out.

My noble friend Lord Waddington asked about adoption agencies and the fact that some have had to close. I think the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, also mentioned that. Let me be clear that the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 and the Equality Act which replaces them did not and do not mean that faith-based adoption agencies must close. Nor do they mean that those agencies cannot restrict their services of recruiting and assessing prospective adopters to people who are Catholic. They just mean that those agencies must not refuse their services to prospective adopters just because they are lesbian, gay or bisexual. It is an important principle that publicly funded services should be provided to people irrespective of their sexual orientation.

I could not quite understand what the Minister just said. Could she rephrase it, because it was not clear to me?

The noble Earl may read Hansard tomorrow.

In response to my noble friend Lord Tebbit, I declare an interest as a person who has a business in the care sector. The specific duties will ensure that those receiving publicly funded services are responded to through those services more appropriately to their requirements. The duties do not create discrimination; they will enhance the services that people receive.

My noble friend waxed almost lyrical on the even-handedness of the regulations in relation to religious discrimination. Will local authorities be required to report on whether schools serving meals to Christian children can serve halal meat covertly without the parents of those children being told?

My Lords, my noble friend asks a question that I may not be able to respond to straight away. I assume that it would be up to the school and the school’s policy to inform parents of what they are doing in activities including school meals.

The noble Lord, Lord Low, has pressed the Government to replace these regulations with the draft published in January. I must stress from the outset that I wholly share the noble Lord’s wish that the equality duty should produce tangible, positive equality improvements for people who experience discrimination and disadvantage. His record on pressing for such improvements for disabled people is to be respected and admired, and I can assure him that we seek to achieve the same ends. We differ only on the best means of achieving them.

As I explained at the beginning of this debate, the equality duty set out in the Equality Act 2010 is a stronger and broader duty than the previous equality duties on race, disability and gender. By providing a clear explanation of what it means to have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations, the new equality duty is designed to focus the attention of public bodies on the aims they need to consider when carrying out all their functions.

In addition, in respect of disability, the equality duty also makes clear that consideration of the need to advance equality of opportunity for disabled people includes considering the need to take steps to account for their disabilities. This important and helpful clarification was the result of an amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell. Noble Lords should be assured that the equality duty will be an effective lever for delivering equality improvements for those who still regrettably experience discrimination and disadvantage.

On the detail of the concerns that the noble Lord expressed, the January draft regulations were not implemented so we cannot know exactly what effect they would have had. The regulations that the Government now propose are the right approach and will help public bodies perform the equality duty better. There was a full public consultation on an earlier draft of the specific duties last year and a further public engagement exercise on them earlier this year. The Government are grateful for the many responses they received and have carefully considered them. Plainly the regulations—

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness. Was not the simple point made by my noble friend Lord Low that, in relation to disability—which he took simply as an example—the regulations that are now proposed go less far than the existing specific duties which, he says, are working well? He says that is the evidence. Is that not a good reason to vote for his motion?

No, my Lords. In continuing with this, the noble and learned Lord will see that we are trying to lay out a better informed basis for the duty, for public authorities to respond to their own local needs. It is not about central diktats that impose duties that have to be responded to regardless, but about being able to take into account what is needed by those public bodies in their particular areas. Once the noble Lord, Lord Low, has heard what I have to say, he will probably feel satisfied that we have addressed his concerns in what we are proposing.

Some equality groups would have liked us to have set very prescriptive specific duties, particularly regarding what needs to be published.

I apologise. My noble friend assumes that our courts will not exclude matters of religious freedom but accept and adjudicate on them. I presume she accepts that, contrary to what I suggested.

If my noble friend allows me to continue he will be satisfied with what I am proposing.

The regulations before noble Lords now require public bodies to publish information to demonstrate that they are complying with the duty but give them freedom and flexibility to do that in the way that makes sense for their particular circumstances. That is the best possible outcome. The key to our approach is to move to democratic accountability through transparency. If service users and local groups do not see the information they need in order to see how their public bodies are performing on equality, they will rightly press for information to be published. And if the information shows insufficient progress, they will press public bodies to do better.

As I have said, we are commissioning the production of a toolkit which will help voluntary and community organisations to use the equality duty to hold public bodies to account for their performance on equality. In contrast, the January draft regulations were too prescriptive. Every meeting a public body had would have had to be logged and the minutes published, and public bodies would have had to publish information which was not helpful to the public in holding them to account, simply because they had looked at it. Smaller local authorities, in particular, were concerned that complying with those earlier proposals would have been too onerous. The Government have listened to those views, and share their concerns. The guidance will make clear what information public bodies should consider publishing. Crucially, the regulations provide flexibility, so that public bodies can develop approaches which fit with their particular circumstances. What is right for a small school will not be the same as what is right for a large Department of State, and this balance is right.

Before I conclude, I will respond to one or two points raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Low, and others, have asked about the reviewing of the regulations. We will take note of the review of the regulations and consider how they have impacted and whether the public bodies have posed challenging objectives themselves—if not, we will have to address those as they come along. The review will include a major survey of public bodies and representatives of the different types of organisations, it will speak to the voluntary sector and the community sectors and it will also work from information from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, comprehensively outlined what this Government are trying to do. I think that across the three major parties there is general agreement that we need to go forward by ensuring that public bodies are accountable, that they are able to show that they are taking due regard of the processes of ensuring that all protected characteristics are included in the forward planning of public bodies and the services they offer. In conclusion, I feel confident that the draft regulations will enable the public to hold public bodies to account for their performance on equality. This will be the real driver for delivering equality improvements and helping us achieve a society which is fairer and provides equal chances for everyone. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Low, feels assured by my remarks.

My Lords, we have had a very good debate, and I would like to thank all those who have taken part. I will not detain the House for long. I am sorry to pick on the noble Lord, Lord Lester, but in his contribution, he very neatly illustrated all that is wrong with the present situation. His line was perfectly simple: “There is nothing wrong with the law, so there is no need for us to register our concern about abuses, as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, wants to do in his amendment, and there is absolutely no need to register our concern, let alone do anything about the abuses”. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, can live quite comfortably with the injustices, but I have to tell your Lordships that I cannot. When the adoption societies were forced to close, that was in accordance with the law. It was a gross injustice. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, can live with it; I cannot. When Brighton and Hove City Council withdrew funding for a care home because it did not like the owners of the home refusing to ask people about their sexual preferences, that was a gross abuse of power. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, can live with that sort of abuse of power; I cannot. When people are sent home from work because they want to wear a cross to signify their religion, I think that that is a gross abuse of power. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, can live with it; I cannot. We have an opportunity this afternoon to show that we have not taken leave of our senses. We are concerned about these abuses. We want to make it plain to people—

I am going to finish now. We want to make it plain to people that there is real concern throughout the whole country. We stand for fair, not unfair, behaviour. Let us make that plain this afternoon by voting for my amendment. I am happy to press it now and I ask noble Lords throughout the Chamber to join me in the Division Lobby.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

As an amendment to the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, to insert at the end “but that this House regrets that the Government have seriously weakened the Regulations, making it more difficult to hold public bodies to account; and calls on the Government to withdraw the Regulations and re-lay the earlier version published in January which required public bodies to publish information on equality analyses they have undertaken, to set objectives designed to facilitate compliance with the General Equality Duty and publish information about the engagement they have had with affected groups when developing these objectives, and to report annually on progress towards meeting these objectives, all of which is critical to ensuring that the General Equality Duty produces tangible and positive outcomes.”

My Lords, what we have witnessed this afternoon is nothing more nor less than a backlash against equality legislation—certainly in the debate if not in the vote. It was a slightly hysterical, indeed apocalyptic, backlash from people who, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said, are basically against equality legislation. As I made clear when moving my Motion, I hold no brief for the excesses of zealots or the ignorant; my Motion seeks merely to underline those elements of equality legislation which have been found to have value in helping public authorities better to understand the needs of historically disenfranchised sections of the community and which the Government embraced scarcely more than six months ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, has dubbed my Motion as leading to overregulation, although I hope that he might on reflection withdraw the charge of it being the “worst kind” of overregulation. We must all have the greatest possible respect for the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who basically invented equality legislation—so it is all his fault, really. We can debate the detail of regulation, and I say with respect that it may be more appropriate to some strands of equality legislation than others. I drew attention to the value of equality analysis and engagement with affected groups—the noble Lord, Lord Lester, might disagree about that; there is room to differ over those—but surely no one could suppose that a duty which is capable of being interpreted as a requirement to set only one equality objective every four years is appropriate guidance to give on how to go about implementing the general equality duty across the piece. I do not see how anybody could suppose that that was unduly burdensome regulation.

Although it has at times been a slightly ill-tempered debate and precious few noble Lords have spoken on my side of the argument, I am grateful to all those who have contributed. However, I persist in believing that my Motion gives expression to the point of view of those who espouse a more moderate and practical approach to advancing equality. I propose to test the opinion of the House in the confident expectation of discovering that the strength of liberal opinion in it remains greater than has appeared in the debate.

Motion agreed.