Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 4:15 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, I return briefly to my concerns about providing some form of legal aid for charities and religious groups who find themselves on the wrong end of legal action backed by the new Equality Commission.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who took time last week to discuss my concerns. She is a brilliant Minister who makes you feel she is listening to you—and I know she is. Even when she declined to amend the Bill to meet my concerns, she still managed to make me feel as if I was coming away with something. That is quite a skill. Not only does she deserve the honorary degree she received yesterday, on which I congratulate her, but if there were such a thing as an honorary degree in diplomacy she should get that too.

However, I remain anxious that, in a legal action over a controversial issue of religious liberties, the enormous financial and legal resources of the commission could be ranged on one side of a legal dispute, leaving a defendant on the other side with limited financial resources at a considerable disadvantage. A church or religious charity being sued would be left passing round the offering plate to raise money to pay lawyers. In these circumstances, even a bad case could make a lot of progress. It could even succeed. The inequality of resources could result in a miscarriage of justice.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, does not think that I need to be concerned about any of these things. She does not believe that the commission would ever use its legal powers other than in the most gross and obvious case of discrimination that everyone would think deserved to be outlawed. I hope she is right. But the noble Baroness came to my aid and suggested that if I tabled these amendments she would make statements on the record which would, if I understood her correctly, give a steer to the commission to ensure that it does not use its legal powers in inappropriate ways against religious charities. I am happy to do so.

I will sit down and invite the Minister to give her reassurance before withdrawing my amendment. But before I do so, I ask the Minister to respond to a particular argument that I raised on Report. I have received legal advice which suggests that, where human rights issues are at stake, creating a massive inequality in legal resources between the parties—as the Bill does by providing legal assistance to one side but not to the other—may breach the European Convention on Human Rights. I should be very grateful to hear the Minister's response to that legal argument. I beg to move.