|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Morris of Handsworth: My Lords, we know that the airport at Gatwick is closed, which prohibits flights taking off, but I understood the Minister to say that RAF planes are on standby. What is stopping
13 Jan 2010 : Column 515
Lord Brett: On the first part, it is a question of time and logistics. We have the personnel and 10 tonnes of equipment all ready to go, and we have the aircraft on the ground at Gatwick, waiting for clearance to depart. If the latest information is that the airport will open at 4 pm, departing then is by far the best option. If we knew it was to be delayed by 24 hours, the option of moving by road to another airport and using RAF bases and RAF aircraft is one that would have to be considered. But at the moment, the most effective way in which to move forward is to rely on the good offices of Gatwick Airport getting clearance with the snow and getting an aircraft in the air in the next couple of hours.
On the second part of the noble Lord's question, on whether a high-level representative should at some stage go to Haiti and make an on-the-ground assessment, that is a matter dependent on the reports that come back, the degree to which we co-ordinate with other bodies and whether such a visit would prove useful. At the moment, we are agnostic on that. We have not decided whether it is necessary but, as the evidence emerges, it will either support or confound the need for such a visit.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords are appalled by the news that we have heard today and cheered by the steps under way. I wanted to follow up on the NGOs, especially those such as Plan, which has had experience in Haiti for more than 30 years and a great deal of influence as regards children. I hope that there will be sufficient co-ordination and involvement of the expertise of government and the NGOs together to do their very best for the country. Already there are tremendous responses to appeals that have been put out, all of which is good; but it is the practical help with the children and the possible exploitation that we have heard about that is so important. I seek reassurance on that and the combination of the medical supplies, which is very important.
Lord Brett: My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Baroness. DfID has been conscious for its whole existence, with perhaps a greater emphasis in later years, of the essential role played by the voluntary community-NGOs, charities and faith groups-particularly in tragedies such as this. I offer the reassurance that she seeks; DfID will seek to use the expertise of all those who can help, because it recognises in these situations that the more one has the ability to co-ordinate urgent well funded and well directed assistance, the more likely we are to minimise the tragedy for families and get people out of the misery in which they find themselves, so that their health can be restored and they have again the normal, basic services of life. I offer the reassurance that the noble Baroness seeks. The fact that my ministerial colleague Mr Alexander is urgently meeting the NGO community this afternoon or tomorrow morning shows the good faith of that.
Lord Judd: I thank my noble friend for the Statement and the reassurance that the Government are going to do everything possible, but does he accept that, for any of us who have ever visited Haiti, the thought of what has happened is in every sense a nightmare? The extreme poverty and the marginal nature of existence for so many of the people in Haiti must mean that the punishment and the pain are particularly dreadful. Does my noble friend agree that while it will be important to mobilise large-scale assistance, obviously, as he has said, if such assistance is not well co-ordinated and without an effective context for delivery it could actually do harm, and that therefore it is essential to get that co-ordination right? Can he assure the House that in the consultations with NGOs, which he says are going to take place, particular care will be taken to use their knowledge and expertise in being close to the ground in shaping the programme and the co-ordination, and not simply playing a part within it?
Lord Brett: My Lords, I will not call it a privilege, but I have had the opportunity to visit Haiti. I can understand why in the press reports I read today that at least one voice was heard to say, "This is the end of the world". If you have lived in Haiti and you have put up with 20 years of everything from corruption to dictatorship, natural disasters, abject poverty and impunity for people who kill each other, then you can see why you might think you were the most benighted people in the most benighted country. I think that places a greater responsibility on us. I entirely agree with my noble friend that, in that context, assistance should be provided not just in the form of material aid or funding; it should also be well co-ordinated.
The United Nations itself, very much at the instigation of the UK Government, has been seeking to make its approach-speaking as someone who worked in that system, I confess that its approach has not always been the most co-ordinated-one where the resident co-ordinator, who is the head of the team, seeks to discuss with NGOs and everyone else how best to use the team effort available to rescue and then to rehabilitate. In that sense the NGOs have a part to play. On the other hand, one has to be absolutely clear that in the past not all the NGOs have been as co-ordinated as they might have been. This is a collective effort that requires both discipline and drive. On this occasion, given the goodwill that exists for the benighted people of Haiti, there is a responsibility to ensure that that drive and determination is carried through.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, first, I endorse the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. As one who is associated with Plan International, I can say that we have been working in the region for over 30 years. Today, it has released over £60,000 to be able to assist immediately.
My main concern is not only the co-ordination but the amount of financial resources that we collect. Could we ensure quick expedition, unlike during the tsunami when substantial funds were collected in this country and it took years and years to disperse them?
Lord Brett: The noble Lord makes a very good point. It seems to me that there are lessons which we have to learn and should have learnt; I have to say that
13 Jan 2010 : Column 517
Viscount Montgomery of Alamein: My Lords, when the Minister's department starts to consider the longer-term solution and recovery of Haiti, will he try to ensure that the department considers maximising the amount of hardware and technical assistance and minimising the amount of direct cash, which often ends up in the wrong place? Technical assistance and hardware, when well thought out, produce the best results.
Lord Brett: The noble Viscount is absolutely right that there is always a danger, in providing assistance of the financial kind, that cunning and effective minds seek to divert it from its purpose to other purposes. DfID in particular looks to see that that is not the case and, if we do not feel that we can work through agencies of government because of those fears, we look to the NGO community and others whose reputation and history is one of effective and non-corrupt provision. It is right to take the noble Viscount's words on board, but in each case we have to assess which is the best form of assistance to be given, which is the best form of delivery, and who the best partners are to do that with.
Lord Hannay of Chiswick: Will the noble Lord give a commitment from the Government that if and when-I am sure that this will happen very shortly-the United Nations launches an appeal for Haiti, the Government will make a substantial contribution to that appeal? Will he recognise that in the case of Haiti-where there is a large UN peace operation, which is not only military but civilian, on the ground-the United Nations is probably quite well placed to help effectively with co-ordination, and that it is therefore important that we work closely with the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs?
Lord Brett: My Lords, among the immediate announcements made today of financial assistance, I believe that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has made a commitment to some $10 million. The noble Lord is a great expert and an old enough hand to know that I am not likely to make a commitment to a specific cause when the causes to which we are committed are the most effective way of dealing with the position of the poor people of Haiti. I am sure that he is right about the United Nations and its ability to do that. There will be many calls upon its funds. The important thing is to go back to the co-ordination of funding and how those funds are spent. I fall back with comfort on the words of the Prime Minister; whatever is required, we will do.
Baroness Howells of St Davids: My Lords, not so long ago during the hurricanes in the Caribbean there was only one ship at a time in the ocean there. Although the noble Lord, Lord West, did his best, that ship had to leave unfinished business in Grenada, where it first happened; it had to go on to other islands. We were promised then that there would always be more than one ship available should any disaster like this strike. Can my noble friend tell us how many ships are in the region at the moment?
Lord Brett: No, my Lords, I cannot directly answer my noble friend's question. I will seek to provide the answer, and I am sure that that and much more information will come forth in the statement to Parliament that my noble friend the Minister has promised in another place. I hope that that will be within the next few days.
Lord Jones of Cheltenham: My Lords, the Minister will know that the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Overseas Territory, are near to Haiti. TCI has suffered in recent years from a fairly large number of illegal immigrants from Haiti. Will he ensure that Ministers talk to the Governor of TCI, where we have imposed direct rule, to give him the best advice possible in case there is another upsurge of illegal immigration from Haiti to TCI?
Lord Brett: I thank the noble Lord for that question. I shall certainly refer it to my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I suppose this is probably the last question. One small bit of hope that arises-not hope, but the consolation that things could have been worse-is that there was no tsunami to accompany this particular earthquake because of its epicentre. Had there been so, then, yes, within the Caribbean there would have been a much greater impact on life. It may be a small mercy. There are not many mercies to be counted, but I suppose in that sense things could have been even worse.
Baroness Warsi: My Lords, this amendment effectively leaves out the words "or philosophical" from the definition of religion or belief. We have tabled this amendment in order to probe what exactly will be included in religion or belief as is used in this Bill. Part of the reason for the great welcome which this Bill received when it entered your Lordships' House was that it consolidates and helps to simplify a very complicated area of legislation.
In keeping with this theme, it is therefore necessary to maintain the utmost clarity when defining the terms of what is included under a protected characteristic. The Explanatory Notes are very helpful in this area. They explain that this is a very,
This appears simple and to provide an adequate description for the purposes of the Bill. The examples show that while such belief systems as Rastafarianism, Sikhism, Christianity and atheism would all be included under the definition, adherence to a particular football team, for example, would not. However, fears have been expressed that there are unintended consequences stemming from this definition. It would be very useful if the Minister could inform the House whether this would be the case.
As the law stands, places of worship are eligible for complete exemption from business rates, and ministers of religion can get significant discounts or even possible exemptions from council tax. Sects such as scientology, which was defined as a philosophical belief rather than the worship of a deity, were, however, ruled not to be included in this bracket. This judgment was passed in the 1970 Court of Appeal case, where because of its definition as a philosophical rather than a religious belief, scientology was deemed not eligible for the same tax breaks.
Since that case there have been many Parliamentary Questions which have allowed this particular ruling to be stated again and again. On 28 October 2009 in another place, Robert Neill asked the Government about the application of non-domestic rates to religious buildings used for public religious faith worship. Barbara Follett, who answered for the Government, included in her reply that the exemption does not extend to organisations which practise a philosophy.
Perhaps the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but it does appear at the moment that the Bill would undermine this court ruling, and set us in a situation whereby philosophical beliefs in fact would also be included under that exemption. The Bill and the Explanatory Notes state clearly that a philosophical belief is also included. Furthermore, the Bill imposes a duty on public authorities which prohibits discrimination, harassment or victimisation by people who supply services or perform public functions. The Explanatory Notes state that this also applies to revenue raising and collection. Can the Minister therefore clarify whether this will mean that those premises used for scientology meetings would undermine the 1970 definition so far that this would mean that the Church of England and the Church of Scientology would have to be treated in the same way for tax purposes? Does she agree that this sends out a difficult message to the public, because, at a time when families and local businesses are really
13 Jan 2010 : Column 520
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will not agree to this amendment. I am a member of the British Humanist Association. I gather that it believes that the exclusion of philosophy from the Bill would be damaging to it. The association thinks that it is necessary to protect its existence, in the same way that it is willing to agree to the protection of people from a number of religious beliefs. Does my noble friend accept that including "philosophical" would enable the Humanist Association to regard itself as protected? "Philosophical" would also protect people who have no belief at all. The association to which I belong has a certain set of beliefs, and believes that it would be protected by including "philosophy" in the Bill.
Baroness Thornton: The amendment concerns matters of religion or belief and would prevent beliefs of a philosophical nature being protected under domestic legislation. There are several reasons why we would resist this amendment, which I realise was a probing amendment.
First, matters of philosophical belief have been protected under domestic legislation since the first definition of religion or belief introduced by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. Since its introduction, this form of protection has never been a cause for concern in either the extensive consultation leading up to the introduction of the Bill or its scrutiny. Since its parliamentary introduction, no opinion has been expressed that appropriate philosophical beliefs should not be protected.
Secondly, removing protection for philosophical beliefs would mean that acceptable and long-recognised belief systems such as humanism would no longer be protected under law. I am sure that many here in this House would not wish for that-not only those who have humanist beliefs, but those who recognise and appreciate the right of others to be protected for holding that belief. I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Humanist Group.
It is true that our European legal obligations that relate to matters of religion or belief, such as the employment framework directive-Council Directive 2000/78/EC-do not attempt to define specifically what the terms religion or belief mean. However, European case law has determined that among the relevant factors that need to be taken into consideration as to whether something can be considered to be a valid religion or belief is that such beliefs must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, provided that the beliefs are worthy of respect in a democratic society, are not incompatible
13 Jan 2010 : Column 521
As regards the issue of scientology and the question about building ratings-the noble Baroness asked a legitimate question-the Bill does not change the current situation. There is a statutory authority exception in relation to public functions which would cover tax relief on religious buildings. I hope that that satisfies the noble Baroness on that particular question.
Ultimately, whether or not something can be considered to be a valid religion or belief for protection under domestic legislation is a matter for the courts. Therefore, irrespective of the immediate effects of the amendment, our domestic courts would be obliged to take European case law into account. This is likely to mean that philosophical beliefs such as humanism would almost inevitably be considered to be worthy of protection by the law and thus negate the effect of the amendment. I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw it.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: For the past 30 years at least, the Church of Scientology has not been accepted as a church. I did not understand from the Minister's answer whether the way in which Clause 10 is set out will change that situation.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: I, too, would like to resist this amendment. The inclusion of the word "philosophy" is really rather important-for religious people as well. The distinction between religion and philosophy could be too sharply drawn. In the Explanatory Notes, paragraph 71 talks about religion or belief having,
It then uses some rather general, catch-all descriptions like "Catholics" and "Protestants". Belief systems are much more complex than are reducible to simple denominational or institutional forms. "Philosophy" here introduces into the scope of the law that degree of freedom for recognising that people actually occupy a number of different positions in relation to the wider belief system in which they find themselves. I therefore wish to resist this amendment.
Baroness Warsi: I thank the Minister for her reply. I am heartened to hear the position in relation to exemptions for tax purposes and am thankful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for requesting clarification on the Church of Scientology. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|