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The Lord Bishop of Newcastle: My Lords, I too welcome the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and its extension into the areas of goods, services, facilities and premises. I am pleased that these amendments have been tabled today. I have one concern, which is not about the
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objective of the amendments but about the method being used. It is about the interface between the right not to be discriminated against on the one hand and the right to freedom of religion on the other. That interface can be a complex and sensitive matter. So there needs to be a careful balancing exercise. That is perhaps best achieved by having a careful period of parliamentary scrutiny.
Therefore, I wonder whether legislating by this means of simply being subject to affirmative resolution on a take it or leave it basis provides the opportunity for the kind of scrutiny which I think would be helpful. I do not question the objective of these amendments; I simply ask about the means by which we seek to achieve it. If the amendment is successful, as I hope it is, perhaps the Government will agree to engage in early discussions with the Churches and other faith communities on how their interests can be reflected in the provisions.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, I welcome the principle of non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. However, I oppose the amendments because they contain no guarantees of proper religious protections, which means that there could be alarming problems for Churches and religious organisations.
The amendments empower the Secretary of State to use secondary legislation to address sexual orientation discrimination. Under the wording of the amendments the regulations could include religious protections, but I am told that that is not required. Maybe they will; maybe they will not. If there are protections, what will they be? We do not know. There is uncertainty on this issue.
There might be circumstances in which a religious group may want to refuse a service because of its religious ethos. Church membership, for example, is often denied to people who do not accept the basic, ethical teaching of the Churchin much the same way as membership of a political party is denied. Religious groups must have protection against legal actions designed to attack their doctrinal convictions. I believe that that is a very serious point.
I have been contacted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester. He wanted to be here to speak to these amendments but has been unavoidably delayed in Winchester. His view is that these amendments have come much too late in our proceedings to allow proper consultation with those religious groups that would want to have their say about how this would be implemented. He is concerned that legislating by secondary legislation does not allow the opportunity for the proper parliamentary scrutiny that a Bill would allow. Here I echo what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle said.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester feels the whole thing has about itin his words"the same whiff of social engineering which was present in the wording of Clause 3, which talked about the
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creation of a society". The simple fact is that these amendments do not contain any religious protections, nor do they guarantee that they will be provided. That is why I do not support them and would like to hear what the Minister has to say.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle, I, too, am concerned about the detail that will presumably be brought in by affirmative order. It is not absolutely clear whether an affirmative order will be involved. I hope the Minister will confirm whether affirmative or negative procedure will be used.
I believe that everybody is agreed on the principle of equality; nevertheless, the details could be very worrying indeed. It is a question not only of religion but of the operation of the regulations and laws which will come about. The law of unintended consequences could very well come into play in this field.
For example, these laws willI am seeking information herepresumably apply to people providing a couple of rooms for bed and breakfast. If I am wrong, perhaps I could be corrected. It may very well be that the person providing bed and breakfast has religious objections to people living as lesbians or homosexuals. In that case, she will presumably be criminalised if she refuses to give them a room overnight. I would like to know about that, for example, because we are talking about ordinary people now, not great hotel chains or other, larger, establishments. These are some of the problems that I can foresee.
The problem with proceeding now on the basis of this amendmentwhich will undoubtedly go throughis that when regulations come to us by affirmative or negative order, we can discuss them but we cannot amend them. We cannot add or subtract; all we can do is agree or disagree. In a matter as sensitive as this, we perhaps ought to consider whether there is another way of dealing with this problem. It is probably too late now, and I apologise for coming late to this matter. I had not wanted to intervene, but now that I have seen the amendments, I can see that there are some difficulties. I do hope that, because I have raised these difficulties, I will not be discriminated against on the basis that I might be, although I am not, homophobic.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I would like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Alli on the persistence with which he has campaigned for the rights of gay and lesbian people. I have done my best to support him from these Benches. I am very glad that, this afternoon, we on this side of the House are supporting what I think is a first step towards achieving non-discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in respect of this group of people.
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We have been talking about this issue for a very long time; it has been repeatedly discussed in this House, and there has been support from all sides of the House. I really think that it is about time that we passed this amendment and got on with the task of ensuring that, in future, people in this group are neither discriminated against nor harassed. Discrimination and harassment against groups of people on grounds of sexual orientation should be totally outlawed. I hope that we shall pass these amendments this afternoon and take a great step towards achieving that objective. I fully support these amendments.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Baroness says that she is in favour of not discriminating against people, which is a view shared by everyone. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, made a very important point. As I understand it, these decisions will come up in regulations and cannot be amended: they can only be accepted or rejected. As your Lordships know, it is not the convention to reject orders in this House. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle correctly said that there is a right not to be discriminated against. There is also a right for freedom of belief. I believe that many people will find there are more problems in the detail than there are in a general feeling that you should not be discriminated against.
The noble Lord, Lord Alli, said that the Government have been very generous and that many gay and lesbian people will benefit. I am sure that that is so. He had a touching catalogue of thanks for people to whom he wanted to express gratitude in the apparent belief that this matter was all over and done with. It reminded me of those people who write begging letters at the end of which, they say, "Thanking you in anticipation". The noble Lord is premature in his thanks. Whatever the views of individuals about discrimination, we should give more time to considering the effects of this amendment.
My noble friend Lady O'Cathain said that the new amendment covers the possibility of religious protections, but they are not required to be protected. There are examples such as a church hall being let out to gay rights activists. The church could refuse to hire its hall possibly to a Jehovah's Witness, under exemptions in Part 2 on religion, but it could not refuse to hire it to a gay Christian group. That would be sexual orientation discrimination. Even if protections are included in the regulations, because they are only secondary regulations, gay rights groups could go to court to try to have them excised. That is unlikely to happen, but it is a possibility.
We should think about what we are putting into primary legislation before we go that far. For example, a private hospital provides fertility services to infertile couples in line with its publicly stated Roman Catholic pro-life beliefs. It is perfectly reasonable to have those beliefs and to do that. But along comes a lesbian who applies for treatment and is refused. She could argue that the hospital has discriminated against her in the provision of services. Religious hospitals or
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organisations could be prosecuted for their religious beliefs and for applying them in the way they think is correct.
I am glad that the noble Baroness is smiling. That is always very encouraging. I really believe that there is more in this than writing, at the very last moment, something fairly fundamental into the Bill. I hope that the noble Baroness will assure us that more thought will be given to that. If we are not given that assurance, we will have to see what happens.
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