Religious Discrimination

– in the House of Lords at 2:58 pm on 12th March 2001.

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Photo of Lord Ahmed Lord Ahmed Labour 2:58 pm, 12th March 2001

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to introduce legislation on religious discrimination.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, the Government are committed to implementing Article 13 of the European Community employment directive, outlawing discrimination in employment and training on grounds which include religion, by autumn 2003. The Government will consult on this matter in due course, taking account of the two recently published research reports on religious discrimination. Both reports will help to raise awareness of people's experience of religious discrimination and of the sensitive and sometimes complex issues involved in the options for tackling it.

Photo of Lord Ahmed Lord Ahmed Labour

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I congratulate the Government on commissioning the first-ever report on religious discrimination. Can the Minister say what were the main findings of the survey in the Derby University report? Can he further say whether there is any evidence of religious discrimination in the fields of justice, media, employment and service provision?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, the Derby University research report indicated that there was widespread concern among members of all faith groups about ignorance and indifference towards religion. People from visible minorities feel more vulnerable and there is much common ground with racial discrimination. Muslim organisations consistently reported a higher level of unfair treatment in education, employment and the media. They were key areas where people were more likely to suffer religious discrimination. The main concerns in education related to such matters as unfair treatment by pupils and, occasionally, teachers; the religious education curriculum; and collective worship. In employment, the main concerns were the attitudes and behaviour of managers and colleagues, including the key issue of harassment.

Photo of Lord Janner of Braunstone Lord Janner of Braunstone Labour

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the Race Relations Act already bans discrimination against certain religions that come under the title of ethnic minorities, which includes Jewish people, Rastafarians, gypsies and Sikhs but does not include Muslims, Christians or any other religion? Surely that is ludicrous and could be changed by a simple amendment to the Race Relations Act. We would not then have to wait for another two years.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lord, the noble Lord makes a very good point. I agree with his interpretation of the legislation. However, we feel that it would be right to bring forward legislation in response to Article 13 of the EC employment directive. We think that that will probably deal with some of the issues about which the noble Lord and others are concerned. The important research that has been commissioned, and now received, will inform that process and others where we may seek to make improvements and strengthen the law.

Photo of Baroness Richardson of Calow Baroness Richardson of Calow Crossbench

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Christian Churches as well have already been addressing this issue and that the Churches' Commission for Inter-faith Relations, of which I am Moderator, has prepared a report in consultation with the Churches' Commission for Racial Justice? The report will be published later this year and will help to raise certain other issues. It is not a simple matter to define religion, but there are attempts to do so in the report. We hope that that will be useful to the Government in preparing legislation.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, we are aware of those moves and the Churches are to be congratulated on the important steps forward they have taken. They have played a constructive role. That reflects the Churches' acceptance of the multi-faith nature of our society. The importance of the research for us is that it will enable us to review the way in which we interface with faith communities. We believe that to be very important.

Photo of Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Lord Pilkington of Oxenford Conservative

My Lords, I speak as a member of Sub-Committee F of the European Union Committee, where the Government have not shown quite sufficient vigour. How much are the Government prepared to resist European directives that stop religious organisations maintaining the articles of their faith in the appointment of members of staff, the standards they demand and so on? Are they prepared to support the integrity of religious institutions against European directives?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, it must be the case that the Government act fairly and properly in these matters. We listen to the representations that we receive from all sides. But I do think that Article 13 is very important and will bring a measure of relief to those faiths which believe that they suffer from religious discrimination. I am sure that the noble Lord would agree with that approach.

Photo of Lord Cope of Berkeley Lord Cope of Berkeley Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that respect for the views of others is essential in a multi-cultural society and that that is relevant to the debate we are to have on the Hunting Bill later today?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, the profound answer to that has to be yes.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there have been a number of reports on this subject? I think in particular of the report of Professor Bob Hepple of Cambridge University and of the repeated reviews by the Commission for Racial Equality recommending the need to outlaw discrimination on religious grounds. All the reports come from very authoritative sources. Can the noble Lord indicate when it is likely that the Home Office will take some steps to amend the Race Relations Act to include religious discrimination?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, it is not for me to prejudge any legislative timetable. I am sure that the noble Lord accepts that that would be quite improper. However, as I said earlier, the two reports are important. They will inform our thinking and help us further to shape policy. No doubt the reports will be widely drawn on to improve practices within religious faiths and across the whole range of public policy.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, can the noble Lord help me? I could not understand whether his answer to my noble friend Lord Pilkington was affirmative or negative. Will the Government take steps to ensure that European policy does not prevent religious foundations recruiting from people of their faith?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I thought that I suggested that we had to take account of a wide range of institutional views. No doubt that is an institutional view on which we shall need to reflect.

Photo of Lord Phillips of Sudbury Lord Phillips of Sudbury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, in a genuine spirit of inquiry, but also as a lawyer, perhaps I may ask the Government whether they really believe that the already Byzantine complexity of employment law can be--how shall I put it--kept within bounds as regards the extremely sophisticated and subtle elements that are now being contemplated in this field.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, the answer to that has to be yes. We obviously need to take very careful account of those matters.