New Clause 41 — Irrelevance of alleged discriminator's characteristics

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 2nd December 2009.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 5:00 pm, 2nd December 2009

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. This will obviously take some time and I apologise to the House for that, but it might be helpful for hon. Members to know that paragraph 19 of that reasoned opinion-reasoned opinion No. 226, on EC cases other than failure to notify measures-says:

"The UK Government has informed the Commission that the new Equality Bill currently under discussion before the UK Parliament will amend this aspect of the law and bring UK law into line with the Directive."

Assuming that the European Commission has correctly interpreted what it has been told by the British Government, I do not see how that interpretation can be true given what the Solicitor-General has told us-that this definition does not narrow the law. They cannot both be true: either the Government have misinformed the European Commission or the European Commission has been very confused. In that case, the Solicitor-General will be able to tell us and she will either have to get a letter winging its way immediately to the European Commission to put it straight or she will have to admit to the House that the provision does indeed narrow the exemption, which she has insisted today is not the case. In any event, we will listen to her explanation with great interest.

Colleagues may feel that I have done this particular aspect of the provisions to death, so I shall briefly pick up a few points I made in response to John Mason. Members will be pleased to know that I am coming to my final point, as I know others want to enter the debate. I remind them, however, that I did not draft the programme motion.

I have had a number of letters from pastors and priests that have been passed on to me from various Christian organisations. I shall try to give a general sense of them rather than quote from them. The authors do not believe that their leadership role within their Churches falls within the definitions. Let me cite one from Spencer Shaw, the pastor of the Emmanuel Evangelical church in Chippenham. He makes the point that he works more than 50 hours a week and that although some of that time is spent leading corporate worship and teaching biblical doctrine, the larger proportion of his time is spent on other matters of running a church. He spends many hours each week in leadership meetings, working with other Churches, organising events, training staff and volunteers, visiting the sick, and listening to and encouraging people with problems. He also spends many hours in study, personal prayer and preparation. He says all those activities

"are vital to the role of the Christian Minister and must be undertaken by someone whose beliefs, ethos and lifestyle are consistent with those of the church he leads."

He does not feel-I have read his explanation of what his job involves-that he would fall within the terms of the definition in the Bill because he would not "wholly or mainly" spend his time on the two specified activities. If the definition does not even include people who lead worship in their churches, it seems to me that it is a faulty one.

I could add a number of other examples, but I will not try the House's patience by reading them into the record. I am not at all convinced, however, that this definition is sound or that the Solicitor-Genera is giving us a straight answer about whether it changes the law. I hope that she is able to clear that up, as it does not accord with what the Government have told the European Commission. On that note, let me make it clear that Conservative Members will support the hon. Member for Stroud if, as he has indicated, he presses his amendment to a Division.