Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 3:15 pm, 9th November 2005

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 Church—in 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 it—in his words—"the same whiff of social engineering which was present in the wording of Clause 3, which talked about the 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.