Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State (Criminal Justice and Offender Management), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management) 5:45 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, it refers to housing. Noble Lords will know that the whole issue of what public functions are and what other issues are involved was dealt with when we talked about them earlier. It seemed to me that part of the discussion was not in terms of exercising a public function or providing accommodation, or those other matters. It was put in a very general way. It is important that we concentrate on what we are talking about in this part of the Bill.

While I am on harassment and the nature of this part, there is a difficulty regarding what has been said about what defines and does not define a religion. I hope I will be able to say a little more about that in a short while.

Who could say that it is right to harass on the grounds of someone's religion or belief in areas such as the provision of services by prison officers to those imprisoned, or immigration officers, or other dischargers of public functions? To say we will not act against such behaviour now in a Bill that—with considerable Cross-Bench support—tackles discrimination on grounds of religion or belief would send the wrong message about what is and is not acceptable, particularly to those communities that are most likely to suffer from this form of discrimination.

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, suggested on Report that the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 provides sufficient cover in respect of harassment so that a separate provision in discrimination law is not necessary. I make it plain that we do not agree. The 1997 Act essentially covers behaviour that causes alarm and distress, that is unacceptable between any two individuals in our society, and that may be thought to be the precursor of violence. The use of the Act may have broadened from stalkers, its initial target, but does not cover the same range of behaviour as discrimination law. I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, has to say about the fact that it was never intended so to do, but it has developed, although it has not quite developed this far.

In Part 2 we are concerned to protect individuals due to the specific relationship between them and a harasser because the harasser is providing a public service or other service that they need, or is involved in providing them with education or vocational training, or is their landlord, or is providing a roof over their head. We think it right to consider more deeply the position between individuals and service providers in the area of goods, services and facilities where there is a less obvious imbalance, and where the recipient or the customer frequently has more choice in how they are obtained. It is for that reason that we have put those matters into the discrimination review.

We recognise that concerns remain around this issue—this debate itself demonstrates that—and that there are particular concerns to ensure that faith groups providing public functions do not by accident find themselves subject to a claim. We have said that we are willing to discuss the details of exemptions in all the areas affected. We have laid a further amendment to that end today, which I have already discussed. We will continue to consider these issues as these proposals are further discussed and implemented. But to remove the prohibition on harassment altogether from the Bill now would in our view fail those who may currently be suffering injustice in these areas.

If it passes into law, we will have no power other than by use of primary legislation to change the definition of harassment in this Bill but it is right that it should be reviewed across the piece in the discrimination law review rather than introducing a separate definition for this one strand at this point. In addition, we have a power to create new exceptions in the area of public functions or to vary the exemptions elsewhere in Part 2, if we do find that these provisions cause us unexpected problems. If some of the fears that have been expressed in this House prove to be correct, we have a vehicle with which to address them.

I turn to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I understand what he says about it. He asserts that we have misunderstood the definition of religion. I hope to clarify our definition. The noble Lord quite rightly referred to the House of Lords' decision in Mandla v Dowell Lee. In that judgment Lord Fraser said:

"For a group to constitute an ethnic group in the sense of the 1976 Act, it must, in my opinion, regard itself, and be regarded by others, as a distinct community by virtue of certain characteristics . . . The conditions which appear to me to be essential are these: (1) a long shared history, of which the group is conscious as distinguishing it from other groups, and the memory of which it keeps alive (2) a cultural tradition of its own, including family and social customs and manners, often but not necessarily associated with religious observance. In addition to those two essential characteristics the following characteristics are, in my opinion, relevant: (3) either a common geographical origin, or descent from a small number of common ancestors (4) a common language, not necessarily peculiar to the group (5) a common literature peculiar to the group (6) a common religion different from that of neighbouring groups or from the general community surrounding it . . . A group defined by reference to enough of these characteristics would be capable of including converts, for example, persons who marry into the group, and of excluding apostates. Provided a person who joins the group feels himself or herself to be a member of it".

That is why, using that definition, the Government believe it is right that an ethnic group is not defined by its religion but that it can in part be so defined. We believe that definition is helpful.