Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 3:45 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, the noble Baroness says that she is in favour of not discriminating against people, which is a view shared by everyone. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, made a very important point. As I understand it, these decisions will come up in regulations and cannot be amended: they can only be accepted or rejected. As your Lordships know, it is not the convention to reject orders in this House. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle correctly said that there is a right not to be discriminated against. There is also a right for freedom of belief. I believe that many people will find there are more problems in the detail than there are in a general feeling that you should not be discriminated against.

The noble Lord, Lord Alli, said that the Government have been very generous and that many gay and lesbian people will benefit. I am sure that that is so. He had a touching catalogue of thanks for people to whom he wanted to express gratitude in the apparent belief that this matter was all over and done with. It reminded me of those people who write begging letters at the end of which, they say, "Thanking you in anticipation". The noble Lord is premature in his thanks. Whatever the views of individuals about discrimination, we should give more time to considering the effects of this amendment.

My noble friend Lady O'Cathain said that the new amendment covers the possibility of religious protections, but they are not required to be protected. There are examples such as a church hall being let out to gay rights activists. The church could refuse to hire its hall possibly to a Jehovah's Witness, under exemptions in Part 2 on religion, but it could not refuse to hire it to a gay Christian group. That would be sexual orientation discrimination. Even if protections are included in the regulations, because they are only secondary regulations, gay rights groups could go to court to try to have them excised. That is unlikely to happen, but it is a possibility.

We should think about what we are putting into primary legislation before we go that far. For example, a private hospital provides fertility services to infertile couples in line with its publicly stated Roman Catholic pro-life beliefs. It is perfectly reasonable to have those beliefs and to do that. But along comes a lesbian who applies for treatment and is refused. She could argue that the hospital has discriminated against her in the provision of services. Religious hospitals or organisations could be prosecuted for their religious beliefs and for applying them in the way they think is correct.

I am glad that the noble Baroness is smiling. That is always very encouraging. I really believe that there is more in this than writing, at the very last moment, something fairly fundamental into the Bill. I hope that the noble Baroness will assure us that more thought will be given to that. If we are not given that assurance, we will have to see what happens.