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 Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative 5:00 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, two amendments in this group are directed towards mitigating the worst effects of Clause 45. I refer to Amendment No. 12, to which my noble friend spoke at the beginning of this debate, and government Amendment No. 13. So long as Clause 45 stands, it will remain all too easy for public authorities to ban religious activity on the pretext that such activity could be found to have the purpose of violating somebody's dignity or creating an offensive environment for him. So I support the amendment, which the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is going to move, to delete Clause 45 and I am afraid that I cannot support my noble friend on Amendment No. 12 .

I want to make a general point. Of course, one should be sensitive to other people's feelings, but I think society has some reason to be worried about the gross and disproportionate way some people react to real and imagined slights and take offence at views expressed by others. It would be a great pity if by changes in the law we were to give encouragement to the over-sensitive to rush to the courts to correct real and imagined grievances. But the real worry, as many noble Lords have said in previous debates, is not that people will rush to the courts to bring actions for religious harassment; it is that public authorities will play safe and restrict the right of Christians to practise and demonstrate their faith for fear of finding themselves on the wrong side of the law.

To that end, they may put a stop to any manifestation of the Christian faith in public buildings by, for instance, cutting funding to Christian welfare charities because they say grace before meals. One has to look only at the circumstances referred to by my noble friends—the reluctance of certain authorities to celebrate Christmas and all the nonsense of the Home Office apparently threatening to withdraw funding for an annual memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields for the victims of crime—to realise that the fears expressed by Christian bodies are not fanciful. They are real.

We are being dangerously complacent if we imagine that if Clause 45 stands we will not find public authorities banning Bibles from hospitals, crosses from cemeteries and crematoria, and chaplains from prisons. Amendment No. 13 does something to protect the display of crosses and Bibles. No government amendment does anything to protect religious debate—in short, to protect free speech.

I fear that under existing law the pendulum has swung dangerously far against free speech. I do not believe that when the Public Order Act was passed in 1986—I was in government at the time—anyone thought that that Act would be used to punish a minister of religion for preaching against the commission of homosexual acts. Yet that happened in Bournemouth a couple of years ago. The minister preaching against homosexual acts was assaulted by a group of young men—claiming no doubt that their dignity had been violated—but they were not even cautioned. It was the minister of religion who was punished.

Personally, I think that that prosecution was outrageous, but that is not my point. My point is that there are already plenty of weapons in the hands of those who wish to suppress free speech and already too many opportunities for those who want to see the free expression of religious views curtailed. I do not want to add to their armament. Most people can see the sense of legislation to prevent discrimination—almost everyone does. Legislation to stop people being offended is a very different kettle of fish.