Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 9th November 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 4:00 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, this has been an interesting debate, and I could have predicted that these issues would be raised. I shall try to address them on behalf of the Government.

There is no question of a late-hour amendment. Throughout the passage of this Bill, I have met with every noble Lord who has put down an amendment in order to make sure that we have the right kind of dialogue. I think that every noble Lord would agree with that. So, as amendments emerge during the passage of the Bill, the Government are usually fully aware of what the amendments are about and why they have been proposed. Noble Lords will know that, at every stage of this Bill, this issue has been raised on all sides of your Lordships' House with real strength of feeling. I have also seen that today. Despite the reservations, the underlying principle behind the amendments commands huge support in your Lordships' House, and rightly so.

It was precisely because of the concerns that were raised that the Government were unable and unwilling to accept the amendments that came before your Lordships' House at the previous stage. As the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said, consultation is a critical part of the development of the regulations. In a sensitive area such as this—we accept that it is—it is very important that we make it clear that we need to consult. We need to consult those who have a religious conviction; we need to consult those who have been discriminated against; we need to consult business; we need to consult all those who provide the services that we are seeking to regulate.

I smiled at the comment of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, about religious hospitals. It was not the "religious" but the "hospital" bit at which I smiled. It is difficult to imagine a hospital refusing a service to anybody. I take serious issue with that.

It will be an affirmative process. We want the maximum amount of consultation. We are not in the business of trying to criminalise individuals for strongly held beliefs. We are in the business of making sure that people cannot be discriminated against when that is inappropriate. I am extremely grateful for the tenacity of my noble friend Lord Alli, supported by his noble friend Lord Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and many other noble Lords on our Benches and other Benches, who worked incredibly hard to see what we could do in the Equality Bill that could support our belief that it is unacceptable to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation.

It is the Government's intention to accept the amendment. It is an important moment because it will lead to an important change in the law. It will lead to much-needed protection against discrimination in areas of life where gay men and lesbians have suffered the kind of injustice and unfairness that can blight lives. It will lead to regulations that will mean that gay men and lesbians will no longer need to put up with discriminatory treatment in hotels or bars, in the financial services sector or in other services provided by the public and private sectors. Anyone who suffers such treatment will in future have the protection of the law. These changes can have a real impact on daily lives. They are one more step towards the society based on fairness and social justice that I believe every Member of your Lordships' House and certainly every member of this Government seeks. It will be another important step on the road to the comprehensive rights that the Government have sought to provide for gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

I congratulate my noble friend. I have listened with great care to the concerns that have been raised. We will be very mindful of the sensitivities involved. We will consult properly and widely. Your Lordships will have the chance to see what is happening for it will be done in a transparent and open way. I say to noble Lords who have concerns, "Please don't have the concerns; we will do this properly". We want to do it for the benefit of our entire society, but especially for those who have been discriminated against for far too long. It is a privilege to accept the amendment.