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The amendment is not part of a numbers game but defines the limits of the arrogance of legislation. I believe that smaller, private associations must be allowed to operate within a minimum of legal constraints. Therefore it is right that those with fewer than 1,500 members should be excluded from the provisions of the Bill.
Indeed, I believe that the strength of civil society in this country rests on the freedom which associationsnotably small associationshave to set their rules within the framework of the rule of law. While 1,500 is not a sacrosanct number, it gives an indication of the deep belief that I share that there must be limits to how far we legislate. I strongly support the amendment.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him for clarification. The noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, said, "within the limits of the law". Surely sex equality is the law.
Lord Dahrendorf: My Lords, I was aware of that when I used that particular phrase. But, as we see, it is only the law if we decide that it should be the law. It is not at this moment, otherwise the Bill would not be necessary. If the Bill becomes an Act, I shall obviously advocate abiding by its provisions. I hope that it will not become an Act.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I find it difficult to reply to the two speeches that we have heard because the language used by both noble Lords is uncharacteristically immoderate. I believe that I heard the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, say that the Bill constituted a "gross interference"those are his wordswith freedom of association; and I heard my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf speak of the "arrogance of legislation" and the "strength of civil society" being at risk, and the rule of law as well.
What are we talking about? We shall come to the amendments standing in my name later. They seek to make it crystal clear that the Bill in no way interferes with the fundamental freedom of association of the noble Lords, Lord Borrie, Lord Henley, Lord Dahrendorf, and Lord anyone else, in their members' clubs and their ability to exclude women totally if they wish to do so. That is their fundamental right. It is the fundamental right of women to do the same thing and of gay and lesbian people to do the same.
The only legislative interference there has been with that fundamental right was in 1976 in a Bill for which I was partly responsible. It became the Race Relations Act, which forbade colour bars in private clubs unless they had as few as only 25 members, when it was a kind of extended family. I cannot believe that my noble friend or the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, would at that time have taken the same position as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, when this House blocked that provision. It was left to the democratic Chamber to
The Bill, as amended today, will not touch single sex clubs at all. I drafted that amendment in order to meet the legitimate concerns expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Henley, Lord Borrie and Lord Dahrendorf in Committee. I thought that having done that and having made it crystal clear, that would be the end of the matter. But, no, what we now have is an amendment that would remove from the scope of the Bill any club with 1,500 members or fewer, even though the club had chosen to admit members of both sexes. In other words, the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, has in mind a club which is more than double the size of your Lordships' House.
Such a club would continue to be free to treat its women members less favourably than men solely on the grounds of their sex. Women will continue to suffer sex discrimination in some large golf clubs or other sports clubs, for example, by being excluded, as they are at the moment, from full voting rights or equal access to the club's facilities and services. As many mixed clubs would fall outside the scope of the Bill, its central purpose would be frustrated. That is why this is a wrecking amendment.
It is common ground that the Bill will not apply to clubs which exercise their freedom to choose to exclude members of one sex from membership. It is most unfortunate that that does not satisfy the supporters of the amendment.
Where a club chooses to admit members of both sexes, there is surely no justification for permitting the male majority to maintain second-class membership for the female minority. That is the principle. It is one thing to create different categories of membership, such as full membership, family membership, associate membership or country membership; it is quite another to create sex-based categories of members, with men being given rights and privileges that are not enjoyed by women.
The amendment is not based on a notion of fairness or equality for women and men. The only argument advanced is dressed in high constitutional language; namely, that we must protect the fundamental right to freedom of association. That argument was used in this House more than a quarter of a century ago to seek to enable clubs to maintain a colour bar, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, reminded us in Committee.
When I made that point in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, explained that he regarded discrimination based on colour as different in kind from discrimination based on sex. But if the argument based on freedom of association that we have just heard were correct in principle, it would apply to both forms of invidious discriminationfor discrimination on the ground of colour and discrimination on the ground of sex are alike: they are based not on the
Lord Borrie: My Lords, does the noble Lord considerI use the word because he is a human rights lawyerthat it is proportionate to the mischief about which he has been speaking that the law should intervene in this tiny category of clubs which have male and female membership but on a different basis? What are the grounds for interfering with that situation and telling the existing membersfrom on high, from the House of Lords and the House of Commonshow they should conduct their lives in private clubs?
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, I thought that I had answered that point. The principle upon which the Bill depends is the simple principle of equality of treatment without unfair discrimination. The application of that principle to the private sector, whether it be a private school or any other private body, should not be any greater than is genuinely necessary in the public interest. It is in the public interest so far as the supporters of the Bill are concernedjust as it is to stamp out colour bars in private clubs of more than a small family sizewhere a club chooses to admit members of both sexes, to allow them to maintain different categories of membership but not on the basis of colour or gender. That is the principle.
The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, is prepared to concede that that principle should apply to clubs whose membership is larger than 1,500. With respect, that is an absurd proposition. A club which has a membership of 1,501 may quickly become a club which is just under that number. There will be shifting membership and shifting categories of membership. So there are practical reasons, quite apart from reasons of principle. But 1,500 is far too high, because most sport clubs and most working men's clubs would not be caught or could easily evade the law.
As the Bill recognises, there are some voluntary associations so small that they are like an extended family. They should be excluded from the scope of the Bill in recognition of the principle that the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, has strongly expressed; namely, that the law should not intrude disproportionately or too far into the private sphere. That is why the exclusion for clubs with fewer than 25 members in the Race Relations Act is matched by the provision in this Bill.
So far as I am aware, the provision has caused no problem in practice. I am not aware that any clubs have found it necessary to make the kind of protests about the anti-colour bar provisions that are now being put forward in relation to a gender bar. I submit that one cannot claim that a club more than twice the size of the House of Lords is an extended familyalthough some might think it to be suchto be given a zone of privacy in which unfair discrimination may flourish against a minority of women members who have insufficient voting power to secure genuine equality of treatment.
We on these Benches therefore strongly oppose the amendment. We await with great interest the position taken by the Conservative Front Bench, especially because of the encouraging statement made yesterday about the Conservative Party, committed as it is to protecting the vulnerable and promoting equality of opportunity. I find it difficult to imagine that the Conservative Front Bench will take a different position on this issue from that taken by these Benches.
Lord Henley: My Lords, perhaps I should say a word or two, as I have added my name to the amendment. Before I begin, perhaps I may offer my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, for answering so speedily the question that I put to her on the previous occasion. My question was: when was she going to respond to the Written Question of my noble friend Lady Blatch, which had been tabled some eight weeks before the Committee stage, about the Government's general attitude to sex discrimination in clubs? The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, announced at the timeat nine o'clock that nightthat she would be answering the question "shortly". I then discovered that it had been answered some time earlier and the Written Answer appeared in Hansard the day after. I admire the noble Baroness for the speed with which she offered that Answer"shortly" was shorter than ever before!
I do not want to add much to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, nor to those of the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, other than to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, on giving us the genuinely Liberal view from the Liberal Democrat Benches that one expects to hear from the Liberal Democratic party. It is the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who is now trying to turn this into a party matter. This is not a party matter. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, I myself, and the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, are supporting the amendment. No doubt there may be a different view from the Front Bench of my own party, just as the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, has sadly found that there is a different view from the Front Bench of his own partyand it is not one that could be described by anyone as "liberal". I refer to the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill.
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