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Lord Lucas: My Lords, I apologise if I have unduly offended the noble Lord in what I said. I think I said that I expected that I would want to disagree with the noble Lord about everything and that I wished to maintain my right to disagree with him about everything without falling foul of the law. I did not mean to imply that what he believes is wrong in relation to what I believe--I am just as capable of being wrong as anyone--but that I wished to defend my right to dispute, and hotly dispute, religion with the noble Lord without fear of the law.

Lord McNair: My Lords, as I have said, I support the noble Lord's right as well. Perhaps we can have tea together and then we can do our hot disputing.

8.34 p.m.

Baroness Uddin: My Lords, I am absolutely assured that tea at the House of Lords will resolve any issue, including religious discrimination.

I believe that a significant part of the House is extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for initiating this debate to examine religious discrimination and the anomaly that exists within the law of the United Kingdom. I do not accept the scepticism of some noble Lords. For instance, the professional ethics of doctors in Muslim countries, as in the United Kingdom, practising abortion would apply. It is wrong to suggest that religious practice would prevent that in any part of the globe. It makes me think that we may have a long way to go in understanding the different religions and peoples of the world.

It is now widely accepted that in order to achieve the desirable goal of a multi-racial and multi-faith society, the fight against racism in modern Britain has to be broad and have conviction and courage. The Government, through the introduction of the Crime and Disorder Bill last year, made the stand against racism incredibly stronger. I am hopeful that I may see the day when religious discrimination will be part and parcel of that stand.

The launch in September 1997 of the Runnymede Trust's report, Islamophobia: a challenge for us all, as mentioned by my noble friend, by the Home Secretary was another historic event that makes the clearest commitment to an anti-racist government which gives birth to a new British tradition. According to the report the word "Islamophobia" has been coined because there is a new reality which needs naming. Anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that change in the vocabulary is needed so that it can be acted against.

In relation to "Islamophobia" in modern Britain, there are a number of areas of concern. In each of these areas English law has not yet developed sufficiently to

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be fully responsive to the needs of British Muslims. Many Muslims are discriminated against for the simple reason that they are Muslims: Muslim marriages are not recognised; the Muslim education system is just beginning to be recognised; Muslim schools are not funded adequately; Muslim organisations are not funded adequately; and there is vilification, blasphemy, incitement to hatred and violence.

Several pieces of legislation enacted in recent years--notably the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1996--show official recognition of the injustices which can be caused by patterns of discrimination. As has been mentioned, the Race Relations Act, for example, makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of race and nationality and on the grounds of ethnic or national origins in the fields of employment, education and so on. However, there is no legislation in England specifically covering discrimination on the ground of someone's religion. Like in most other forms of discrimination it is often the women who suffer the wrath of religious discrimination. I was going to say that it is not reflected in this Chamber. Perhaps I will consider withdrawing that.

Muslim women, obliged to cover their head with a scarf, have borne the brunt of religious discrimination in the workplace. Over the past couple of years there have been hundreds of cases up and down the country of Muslim women being discriminated against because of their faith. But it is not only Muslim women who have suffered. There is evidence to show that other women from minority religious faiths have suffered too. I agree with other noble Lords that enactment of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Acts of 1976 and 1989 on the mainland would not solve all the problems of religious discrimination, but it might just send a necessary and powerful message of the kind of inclusive society that we desire in new Britain--a new Britain where we do not compare a cult with a religion and where we do not tolerate religious discrimination. I believe that the Muslims of Britain rightly aspire to having that demand met by the British Government. It would be a very small step in terms of law, but a major leap in terms of the efforts towards a just and fair society.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for initiating this extremely useful and interesting debate. I am conscious that I am the last in a long line of Back-Bench speakers and that much has already been said. I shall endeavour not to repeat but to respond to some of the points made.

Some of the comments we have heard offer powerful testimony to the continued existence of religious discrimination in this society. I say "continued" because such discrimination has existed over many centuries. One has only to look at the story books that I received as a child-- which I expect are still in circulation--which look back at the history of this

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country with reference to the Crusades. They offer an extremely unflattering portrayal of the infidel against whom the gallant English went to fight. Exactly the same kind of message continues in the media's portrayal of some religions in a very unflattering light and in the way in which they are perceived by many people.

We must also recognise an anomaly. As my noble friend Lord Ahmed made clear in his opening remarks, unlike racial discrimination, religious discrimination is not unlawful. If we look around society today, there is plenty of evidence of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and discrimination between religious communities. The other anomaly is that incitement to racial hatred is an offence, while incitement to religious hatred is not.

We must learn lessons from events elsewhere in the world. We must look at the wars that are taking place around the world based on hatred of particular religious beliefs. We have only to look at some of the conflicts that have occurred in the past few years in Europe and in Africa to see the extent to which they are based on religious conflict. Many in this country take the self-satisfied position that it could not happen here. My point is that those feelings exist: they exist under the surface. We must recognise the nature of the communities that are now based in many of our inner-city areas and that they contain exactly the same mixture of passions as exist in various parts of the world. So it is a matter on which we must focus, and we must take it extremely seriously.

My noble friend Lord Warner raised what he described as a series of considerable cautions in regard to the issues that are before us. He said that if there were to be legislation, it would have to cover a range of religious beliefs. And so it would. There can be no argument about that. My noble friend Lord Ahmed volunteered a definition, and was accused by subsequent speakers of defining approved and unapproved religions. But the matter would ultimately need to be defined either in legislation or by the courts. I rather suspect that any sane-minded person would be able to look at certain sets of beliefs and organisations and say, "Yes, that is a religion; this is not. This is outside the definition".

My noble friend Lord Warner also said that we live in a secular society and that therefore this concern is irrelevant. I may be misapplying the--

Lord Warner: That is unfair.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My noble friend says that my remark is unfair. But the fact that we live in a secular society means that those who have sincere and strongly held religious beliefs are even more of a minority; they are even more subject to discrimination than might otherwise be the case.

My noble friend Lord Warner also spoke about the problems that could arise in children's homes and schools if employment legislation were to be introduced forbidding discrimination on grounds of religious belief. But surely the matter would have to be

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tackled by examining the professional practices of the individuals concerned. It is not appropriate for anyone in a position of authority to "force feed" particular beliefs down children's throats. That would be the ground on which action would need to be taken.

My noble friend Lord Haskel talked about the dangers of fossilising religious beliefs by such a measure. That need not be the case. Some of the legislation considered by this House during the past few years has placed on the new institutions of devolved government the responsibility to promote harmonious relations. That is the lesson that we should learn from the Northern Ireland legislation: the need for positive action on behalf of the structures of society and organisations to promote harmonious relations between different communities, races and religions. That is the way to meet the objective of my noble friend Lord Haskel of achieving a harmonious society where religious beliefs are not fossilised.

I am hopeful that, following the debates initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and myself at the Committee and Report stages of the Greater London Authority Bill, we shall see a similar provision on the face of that Bill by the time it leaves this House. That precedent, and the precedents set in other legislation devolving powers to assemblies, offer a way forward. I hope that when the Race Relations Act is reviewed, as the Government have promised to do, those points will be taken on board.

8.46 p.m.

Lord Craigmyle: My Lords, I am grateful for the chance to say a few words in the gap. I listened to the opening remarks in the debate from the steps of the Throne and I was very impressed. I cannot offer an opinion on the specific question of extending the Northern Ireland legislation to the rest of the UK. However, I rise to support the theme that underlies the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed; namely, that there should be no defence in law for unfair behaviour based on religious preferences. I support that principle profoundly.

Perhaps I may ask a favour of the noble Lord. Will he use his very good office and influence also to help the religious minorities of other countries to fight discrimination?

8.47 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, everyone who has spoken has expressed gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing this important debate. All speakers have contributed in their different ways, bringing their own experiences to the debate. My qualifications for speaking come from my own experience as a secular Jew, a humanist, and someone who helped to frame the Race Relations Act and the Sex Discrimination Act in the 1970s, and who attempted at the time to knit together the Northern Ireland legislation with the British legislation into some kind of comprehensive code, and failed to do so.

The fundamental question raised, with great power, cogency and eloquence by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, is the

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problem of Islamophobia. It is the problem of how to give British Muslims the right to effective remedies for arbitrary discrimination and unequal treatment of the kind that people like myself have if we are discriminated against as Jews on racial grounds.

I personally find it strange that I should have a remedy if I am discriminated against on racial grounds but, for example, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, should not have a remedy if he is discriminated against on religious grounds. When, as an officer in the Army, I experienced discrimination, I could never tell whether the anti-Semitism was on racial or religious grounds. Other noble Lords have referred to the complications, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in his important speech.

There surely has to be an effective legal remedy for the wrong of religious discrimination as well as the wrong of racial discrimination. I suggest that those who raise technical objections to the framing of legislation should concentrate on the need for a legal remedy for British Muslims that is as effective as that which exists for other minorities in this country. That is the pressing social need that must be addressed.

When I hear technical objections being raised I wonder whether we ever look at the laws of other countries. Almost every other Commonwealth and continental European country, as well as Ireland, have in their written constitutions guarantees of equal protection of the law without discrimination on any ground, including religion. It is only because we do not have such constitutional guarantees that we have the incoherent patchwork of laws that act in their place. Surely, it is absurd that my rights as a British citizen should depend on whether I happen to live in Great Britain or Northern Ireland. How can it make sense that religious discrimination is forbidden in Northern Ireland and not in Great Britain? I know of no other country like that. It is no use saying that there is something special about Northern Ireland. There is nothing special about religious discrimination that is confined only to Northern Ireland. Therefore, I find that argument unpersuasive.

It is also said that to define religion is very complicated. However, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out, religion does not have to be defined in statute law. It would be undesirable to do so because then it would be fossilised, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. The Human Rights Act 1998 has a special section that protects freedom of conscience and religion. It does not define "religion" any more than Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights defines it. It is left to the courts to decide on a case-by-case basis which religious beliefs and organisations fall within the protection of the law in the event of arbitrary discrimination.

We are bound in international law to do something about the gap in our legal system. Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights is now incorporated into our law. Unfortunately, although it covers education and property, it does not deal with employment discrimination. The Government are to

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be commended that in June they ratified ILO Convention 111 which forbids discrimination in employment and occupation on religious and other grounds. There is an obligation under the ILO convention to legislate, where appropriate, against religious discrimination in the field of employment. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights imposes similar obligations. Speaking as a lawyer, we are out of step with international standards in not providing an effective remedy.

In his speech at Bournemouth the Prime Minister made some very commendable observations about the commitment of the Government to equality of opportunity and access to work. Speaking as someone who had the privilege to work for a previous Labour government in this area, I should be astonished if the present Government showed a more lukewarm commitment to equality and effective legal remedies than did Roy Jenkins in his day. I very much hope that the arguments of those who say that this is technically impossible and do not look beyond the four corners of this country will not count in the end. For those reasons, I support the objective of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, although, like him, I am not wedded to the idea that Northern Ireland legislation is the only way to achieve it.

8.54 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, even within the extended time I shall not attempt to reflect on all the points that have been made. However, one point that has been universally made is that the whole House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing this debate. I repeat that. I do not say that only in a formal sense. I believe that this is an exceptionally important matter for the future of our multi-cultural society. As has become clear during the debate, it is also a very difficult matter that deserves careful thought. This debate has also assisted the social arrangements of my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord McNair, which we hope will lead to greater understanding even within the walls of your Lordships' House.

I was for a while a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. I share the underlying premise of the noble Lord's Question that the whole of our country--Northern Ireland and Great Britain--should as far as possible be governed by the same laws. But the differences in law reflect the special problems of Northern Ireland. Widespread discrimination in employment in Northern Ireland was an exceptionally damaging component of the troubles, which have cost 3,000 lives. That is the background to the Northern Ireland legislation. Some discrimination still exists there. The Northern Ireland fair employment laws of 1976 and 1989, now developed in the 1998 legislation, made very important advances in monitoring, reporting and helping to improve that situation.

Your Lordships should not think that that legislation is without its critics for a variety of reasons: the bureaucratic burdens on employers and the difficulty of recruiting from the other community, whichever it is in a particular case, in districts where

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only one group lives. Another effect of the troubles is that in particular areas of Northern Ireland there are less mixed areas and sharper differentials. Incidentally, the Northern Ireland legislation does not require or expect positive discrimination. However, it requires affirmative action. Briefly, one cannot, for example, say that because there are too many Protestants one needs to build up the quota of Catholics. However, one can make a particular effort to recruit Catholics in a situation of that kind by the nature of one's advertisements, where one places them and so on.

I do not believe that the remedies aimed at that problem can simply be transplanted to Great Britain, where the situation is different. It has already been pointed out that in Northern Ireland the discrimination which led to the legislation involves only two groups: Protestants and Catholics. These descriptions of the community divide in Northern Ireland conceal its true nature. It is not a doctrinal argument. Some churchmen on both sides are among those who work hardest to bridge the divide. Essentially, the division is tribal. But in Great Britain the religious scene is much more complicated. The discrimination with which we are concerned today concerns Muslims, Hindus and others, but generally worded law about religion would not be confined to them. There are all kinds of churches and religious groups, including the Church of Scientology, Druids, various cults and so on. Even the main religions have sub-divisions within them which often embody some of the sharpest divisions of all. After all, that is the Northern Ireland case. Both communities are Christian but the division is very sharp.

I recall a very difficult problem with which I was concerned when I was a Member of another place about whether places of worship used by the Exclusive Brethren--a special Christian group--were legally churches for the purposes of gaining relief from local rates. The Act said that they should be open for public worship. They were not regarded as open but exclusive. In the course of that argument it was pointed out that for a good part of the time neither monasteries nor nunneries were open for public worship. I believe that that illustrates the difficulty of framing legislation in this area.

If legislation is to be effective, those problems of definition must be solved. They cannot simply be brushed aside. I do not say that they are incapable of solution; I do not believe that. But I do not think that they have yet been solved, with all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, who gave us one suggestion for the definition of religion. But similarly--it came out in the speech of my noble friend Lord Lucas--careful thought needs to be given to a definition of "unacceptable" and "acceptable" discrimination, because some religious discrimination is acceptable.

We are not totally without legislation on this matter. We have the laws against the incitement to racial hatred in the Public Order Act 1986. But in other respects the law is both haphazard and difficult.

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We have now the Human Rights Act. I had hoped to hear a little more from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on how he thought that might impinge on the situation; I think that it is probably helpful. However, great care and thought needs to be given to how we go further. We know that the Government have commissioned research. No doubt we shall hear more about that in a few minutes. But the law has a smaller part to play, in my judgment, in these matters than understanding and education in its widest sense. Knowledge of other people breaks down discrimination more quickly and more effectively than ever the law can do. And I believe that the media have as much to contribute as the schools in that respect.

I have remarked previously in your Lordships' House that I think that it does immense damage when the impression is given that all Muslims are fundamental extremists. The vast majority are not. Their family and community values are an example to the rest of us. It is absolutely clear from the debate that we want everyone to set their faces against any religious discrimination. To pick up the words of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, when opening the debate, no one in this country is a second-class citizen; but, more than that, no one should feel himself a second-class citizen either.

9.1 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it has been an extensive, interesting and fascinating debate; and for that we should be forever grateful to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. It has been wide ranging. I have managed to make several pages of notes. I cannot promise today to do justice to all the points raised, but I shall try to run through in general terms the Government's approach to these matters.

My noble friend Lord Ahmed knows, as a Muslim, that issues of religion are important. They are clearly close to his heart and he has often spoken passionately in this House about issues of importance to the British Muslim community. His perspective on these matters greatly enriches your Lordships' House and we should thank him for that--as does the contribution on matters spiritual and temporal made by the other noble Lords who have spoken from a religious and ethical perspective. So it is right that this House should consider issues of concern to our religious communities.

This is a country with a strong Christian history. But it is also a country which enjoys the benefits of a broad and diverse religious landscape. If I may, I shall quote from the multifaith directory which estimates that in the United Kingdom as a whole there are some half a million Hindus, 300,000 Jews, 1½ million Muslims and half a million Sikhs. The list is a long one, with significant numbers of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Jains, Baha'is and many other minority faiths.

The Government have a clear vision of a multicultural Britain, a Britain where every citizen, every community, earns and gives respect, where rights and responsibilities are well balanced, a nation which

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values the contribution made by each and every one of our diverse communities, takes pride in our diversity and celebrates it to the world. We want to see a truly dynamic society in which people from different ethnic cultural and religious backgrounds can live and work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, while retaining their distinctive identities. Only in that way shall we be able to reap the huge advantages--economic, social and cultural--which diversity brings.

In order to achieve that vision, the Government are determined to tackle and eliminate discrimination and intolerance. Prejudice, racism, bigotry and xenophobia all blight people's lives; and they blight our communities. My noble friend has reminded us helpfully of how religious intolerance and discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland was tackled effectively.

I want to start with the Government's approach in general terms. The Human Rights Act will incorporate into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights. On 2nd October 2000 we shall bring the Human Rights Act fully into force. This is a major new initiative and will help us create a new culture of rights and responsibilities in the UK. The Act gives further effect to rights in the ECHR. Those include rights relating directly to religion. In particular of course there is Article 9: the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. But other ECHR rights also touch on religion--for example, Article 10; as does Article 8, the right to respect for private and family life.

The ECHR is about balance. Yes, there are rights, but as Strasbourg says, there are limits to those rights. And sometimes the state has to interfere with them. It is a matter of balancing the rights of the individual with the needs of society as a whole. The Human Rights Act is about balance: balancing one right with another and balancing rights with responsibilities.

Nowhere is that balance more important than with religious matters. It is essential that we have an effective dialogue on religious discrimination. And I know that the Human Rights Act will be a great help in developing that dialogue. The Human Rights Act is already having an impact.

I should like also to turn to matters relating to race and religion. On the question of racially aggravated offences which were introduced in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, let me begin by making it absolutely clear that there is no question of this Government condoning religiously motivated violence or harassment.

The provisions in the Crime and Disorder Act do not protect some groups and not others. They protect everyone from racist crime. During the passage of the Bill, a number of noble Lords raised the issue of whether those offences would cover an attack made on a Muslim. The Government were also aware of the concerns of some religious groups, in particular Muslim organisations. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary met with Muslim community leaders to discuss this precise issue.

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We believe in practice that most cases, which may appear to have a religious element, will also have a racial element. We do not believe that when the perpetrators of those offences attack Muslims they do so because of hostility towards the tenets of Islam. They do so because of racist hostility towards the victim and towards the ethnic minority groups that are associated with the Muslim faith in this country. The test of what amounts to "racially aggravated" for the purposes of these offences requires that racial hostility is "wholly or partly" a motivating factor.

It follows that even if there is religious hostility, provided that part of the hostility is racist the offence is covered by these provisions. We amended the Bill to make that absolutely clear. The religious element is immaterial where racism forms even a part of the motivation for the offence. We believe that that will cover the vast majority of cases that involve the Muslim community.

We are alive to the concerns of the Muslim community and others about religiously motivated crime. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made clear during the debate on the Crime and Disorder Bill in another place that we had not ruled out extending these provisions. We have commissioned research, which is now well under way, to examine the implementation and effectiveness of these offences.

I now turn my attention to the Race Relations Act 1976. The Act makes unlawful direct or indirect discrimination against a group of persons in Great Britain defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said, the decision in this House in the Mandla case brought Sikhs and Jews, as groups capable of being defined by their ethnic origins, within the scope of the Race Relations Act.

The reasoning which Lord Fraser applied in that case means that Muslims, Christians and other faiths resident in a variety of cultures are not capable of being defined by ethnic origins and therefore not within the scope of the Act.

This decision has led to the anomaly where certain faith groups receive legal protection from discrimination which is denied to other faith groups. However, in practice, the difference might not be so great. The existing evidence, of which there is very little, suggests that in the vast majority of cases discrimination suffered by followers of minority faiths is based on their ethnicity rather than their beliefs. And where discrimination is based on ethnicity there is protection under the 1976 Act; as in the case of an Asian Muslim woman who is discriminated against as a result of wearing the hijab, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.

Is that discrimination motivated by the hijab as a symbol of Muslim identity? We in this House recognise that the hijab is exactly that; a proud declaration of a Muslim woman's identity and faith. I suggest that the mind that harbours ignorant and racist views sees the hijab only as a symbol of ethnicity and the motivation of racism.

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The Government are alive to the concerns of the minority faith communities on this issue. We do not have a closed mind. The Prime Minister, in addressing the Muslim Council of Britain in May this year (the first Prime Minister ever to do so), said:

    "We are listening to those in the Muslim community who want to make sure that they get the right protection under the law".

I suggest that we would all subscribe to that.

The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, also mentioned the law regarding incitement to racial hatred. The current law is contained in the Public Order Act 1986. Section 17 of that Act defines racial hatred as:

    "hatred against a group of persons in Great Britain defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins".

The definition is the same as that used by the Race Relations Act 1976 and the same difficulties therefore arise as with that Act.

The Government are concerned that the law should be as effective as possible. Let me assure the noble Lord that the Government are aware of the concerns that the provisions of the Act do not extend to incitement to religious hatred. That is a matter to which we shall be giving careful consideration in due course.

The noble Lord's Question was whether the Government would extend to the rest of Britain the Northern Ireland legislation prohibiting discrimination on the ground of religion. The Fair Employment Act 1989, to which the noble Lord referred, is a piece of legislation crafted in response to the particular circumstances that applied at that time in Northern Ireland. I need not remind this House of the terrible history of sectarian hostility and violence that the people of Northern Ireland have suffered and which provided a very real context for this legislation.

One manifestation of that hostility was clear and indisputable cases of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. In short, whether an individual was Catholic or Protestant influenced his or her ability to secure employment. As yet, no comparable evidence relating to the position of religious minorities in Britain has been put to the Government. There is no quick fix to be administered here. This is a complex and sensitive area and it would be wrong of the Government to legislate without first having a clear understanding of the nature and scale of the mischief that needs to be addressed.

I have made many references in my speech to the paucity of evidence on which the Government are prepared to act in this area. I hope that noble Lords will not think that we see such a lack of evidence as justification for pushing this important issue aside. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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My right honourable friend the Home Secretary--

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