Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 9th November 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of The Bishop of Newcastle The Bishop of Newcastle Bishop 5:15 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, we on these Benches have similar concerns to those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, especially about Clause 45 on harassment.

The concept is uncertain in its scope. One of the anxieties is that it may enable people, both of faith and of none, to take advantage of the provisions to make inappropriate claims of harassment. The provision is so widely drawn. It refers to,

"creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment", and "violating" someone's "dignity". That is broad and uncertain and the parameters are far from clear.

We have considerable sympathy with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and we are concerned that such a provision, wide and uncertain as it is, could be used to strike at religious organisations and their practices from outside the faith communities. They could also be used to encourage differences between them.

While it is true that someone's perception that he is the subject of harassment is not enough to found a successful claim, there is always the test of reasonableness. None the less, the potential for claims to be made against religious organisations remains. The encouragement of litigation in that way cannot be in the public interest. While we strongly support the idea that no one should ever be harassed on grounds of religion or belief, which I tried to say clearly in Committee, we still find this part of the Bill unsatisfactory, and we are worried that it could do more harm than good.

I find myself in something of a dilemma. If the harassment provisions remain in the Bill, we wish them to take a form that gives as little scope as possible for bringing claims of harassment in relation to expressions of religious belief. We believe that the government amendment helps and provides some assistance, and we welcome it to that extent. If Amendment No. 14 is passed tonight and if Clause 45 is then reinstated in another place, we would want the government amendment to be along the same lines, and extended if possible, in the final form of the Bill.