Equality Bill [HL]

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

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Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour 5:15 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, I am a secularist and I see great dangers in this clause. For example, somebody might call me a heretic or an infidel, and I might very well take grave exception to that. It is very dangerous to be called a heretic or an infidel because, as a heretic, you can burn and, as an infidel, you can be stoned to death. One could therefore very easily take exception to being called a heretic or an infidel. One does not have to be of religious faith to be offended. As other noble Lords have pointed out, we are reaching an absurd situation where Christians are being penalised because they want to celebrate a Christian festival and those festivals are being put aside because of some perception that other people of a different faith might be offended.

That is completely absurd. I will give one more example, which is that is of a fire officer going to a fire station and insisting that the cross of St George should be removed in case that offended Muslims. We really are reaching an absurd situation, and it seems to me that this clause, in particular the phrase "or effect", will exacerbate the position rather than provide proper equality between people and religions.

Another thing about it which worries me is that the people who are often alleged to be offended—it generally happens that it is people of the Muslim faith—are not offended. I am afraid that it is often white, so-called liberals who impose these restrictions, not the Muslims who might be affected. But the effect of that, when it comes through in the newspapers, is that it is the Muslims who are objecting—and not that is their white, Christian compatriots who are doing this. That, in turn, leads to racial difficulties between people, and, indeed, to racial hatred. It is exactly what the Bill is supposed to eradicate.

I really want to support both amendments, but the better one is probably that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. The matter really needs to be looked at very seriously and the noble Lord, along with other Members of your Lordships' House, has obviously given it considerable attention. We should be grateful to him for that. I hope that if the Minister takes no notice of what I say—and she never does—that she will, at least, take notice of the distinguished contributions made this afternoon, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, but by other noble Lords and Baronesses as well.