Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 5:00 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 12, 13, 14 and subsequent ones. My noble friend's Amendment No. 12 would of course provide a safeguard, but it does not go far enough. Narrowing down Clause 45 to actions that have the purpose of causing harassment does not eliminate the risk of catching all kinds of perfectly sensible behaviour.

What if a religious charity knew that some people thought that saying grace at meals was harassment? If it continued to say grace anyway a court could infer a harassment purpose on the basis of its prior knowledge of other people's sensitivities. No, these harassment provisions are just too risky whichever way you slice them. I acknowledge my noble friend's concern about this issue—she is a deeply committed person. We have had discussions on the matter. But in these circumstances I prefer the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to delete harassment completely from the Bill. I have put my name to that amendment.

Turning to government Amendment No. 13, I am reluctant to appear ungrateful when the Government have clearly moved some way towards us on this issue. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, has applied her considerable brain to this matter and has sought to offer something which meets the problem. I appreciate that but I am sad to say that this amendment is simply not enough.

Since Second Reading I have constantly raised concerns about how the religious harassment provisions could be used to attack our religious heritage and undermine liberty. Amendment No. 13 proves that my concerns were well founded. It now appears to be accepted that without this amendment a hospital could be sued for harassment over the placing of Bibles, a local council that holds a public meeting in a church could be sued over the presence of a cross on the wall, and, indeed, a Salvation Army hospice could be sued over a banner on a wall containing a biblical text.

My concerns about harassment have grown as the weeks have gone by. We live in a crazy world where some individuals are litigious. We live in a country where officialdom increasingly appears to be in thrall to political correctness. That is already having a damaging effect on our heritage. Last week we had front-page newspaper headlines about officials at Lambeth council trying to ban Christmas lights; Inland Revenue officials banning support for a Christian charity that sends Christmas presents to needy children; and museum staff deleting references to Christ from exhibits. We need to be sure that the Bill does nothing to encourage this kind of lunacy. Although the government amendment addresses religious objects, I am worried that it does nothing for free speech, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said.

On Report I tabled an amendment on behalf of the Church of England, which addressed not only religious objects but also manifestations of religion. It was intended to protect the saying of grace at meals and conversations about religion. The government amendment, to be fair, copies my amendment in some ways—and I am flattered—but it deletes references to manifestations of religion.

I understand that officials felt that this area was too difficult to address, but we cannot just leave the matter to the tender mercy of hostile litigants because it is too difficult for officials to address. We cannot ignore the plight of the Christian hospice that could be sued for saying grace, or the prison chaplain who is told he cannot initiate conversations about God with inmates, or the Inland Revenue employee who is banned from wishing his clients a merry Christmas.

I think that the whole issue of harassment is absolutely fraught and that we would be better off without it. That is why I cannot support the government amendment and instead support Amendment No. 14 and all the subsequent amendments in this grouping, to which I have added my name. I do so because I fear religious harassment could be as damaging to religious freedom and community cohesion as the religious hatred provisions that the Government want to introduce in another Bill.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Lester, perhaps I may briefly give the House some theoretical examples of the kind of mischief that could result from Clause 45. Let us imagine that a Home Office official gives a talk on community relations. Perhaps he talks about the risks posed by certain religious cults. If one of those present is a member of such a cult, an action could be launched claiming that the official created a hostile environment. What about a GP's waiting room where there are posters on the wall—and I have seen these—from a Government agency advertising a telephone helpline for members of ethnic minorities who are being coerced into forced marriages? If a woman comes in who believes, as a matter of faith, in arranged marriages, could she lodge a claim that the poster created a hostile environment?

What about the case of a pagan who outwardly says he is a pagan and is in gaol for a paedophile offence? The chaplain criticises the occult and warns prisoners to have nothing to do with it. The pagan could claim harassment; he could seek an injunction. Does this case sound ridiculous? These are the facts of a real case, brought in Australia under religious vilification legislation. It did not succeed under Australian law, but it illustrates the kind of case that could be brought.

We are not legislating in a vacuum. We are legislating in a climate where there are already some who view the equality agenda as a pretext for attacks on faith. I quote from last Sunday's Observer:

"A local authority is to pull the plug on its funding for festive lights because Christmas does not fit in with its 'core values of equality and diversity'. Waveney District Council, based in Lowestoft, Suffolk, said that because Christmas focuses on the Christian faith, it had decided its 'equality and diversity' commitments were not being met".

This is ludicrous.

Sadly, even the Home Office itself is making headlines on this issue. In one of yesterday's papers it was revealed that Home Office officials are threatening to withdraw funding from a memorial carol service for the victims of crime because it is too Christian. It suggested holding the service at a secular venue. This is precisely the kind of over-sensitivity that this harassment provision will foster. Removal of the provision would remove a considerable source of uncertainty and, indeed, anxiety from the Bill. I do hope for great support for Amendment No. 14 in the Division Lobby.