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Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:33 pm on 21st March 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Labour 8:33 pm, 21st March 2007

My Lords, I support these regulations, because I believe that they are the final stage in the process of removing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and follow on the lines of the employment regulations passed in 2003. As the Minister made clear, the Equality Act 2006 provides for the extension of equality in respect of sexual orientation to the provision of goods, facilities and services, and the exercise of public functions. It was during the Third Reading of the Bill that noble Lords accepted an amendment to allow the Secretary of State to make regulations that prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Since then, a number of inflammatory, inaccurate and sometimes distressing claims have been made about the regulations by some people who I believe firmly are opposed to gay people and are against equality for them.

It has been suggested that there is a contradiction between support for equality and freedom of religious conscience. But as my noble friend set out in some detail, there is no question that the regulations contravene in any way people's freedom of religious conscience. They explicitly contain a doctrinal exemption for churches and other religious organisations, which is not only appropriate but also very robust. It reflects the approach taken to the Northern Ireland regulations which were approved by the House in January this year by 199 votes to 68, a majority of 131.

Surely it must be right, and a right, that there is protection for individuals from unfair treatment because of their sexual orientation, whether it be in staying in a hotel, treatment or delivering a health service or in the provision of education. My noble friend Lady Massey referred to Section 28 and the discussions we had about that. Ultimately, this House agreed that Section 28 should be no more. Is it right that there should be unfair treatment in the rental or sale of premises or on the question of adoption agencies? It is on the question of adoption that I wish to concentrate my brief remarks.

On 16 October 2002, during proceedings on the Adoption and Children Bill, we discussed the question of adoption by gay couples. I shall not rehearse the arguments of the time, but I shall repeat one point that I made then. We have to do everything in our power to ensure that children can find loving, caring homes as quickly as possible. I do not believe that anything in these regulations undermines that objective. The approach taken strikes a positive balance between eliminating discrimination and recognising the need for a practical approach to ensure that the most vulnerable children are found loving homes. That balance is based on two fundamentals: first, that discrimination in all its forms must be eliminated; and secondly, that we retain the excellent adoption expertise that is to be found in all our adoption agencies, including of course the Catholic agencies. Alongside that, however, it is necessary to add that when offering a service to the public, especially when it is funded by taxpayers' money—a subsidy from the public purse—access to that service must be available to all sections of the community on equal terms. We would not find it acceptable if adoption agencies refused couples because they were black. Why should it be acceptable for them to refuse prospective foster or adoptive homes on the grounds of sexual orientation?

The transition period under Regulation 15(2) will give adoption agencies until the end of 2008 to address how they will adapt to meet the new legal requirements. I know this has been scorned by many, but I believe that there is a possibility—an absolute probability, I am sure of it—that the differences will be resolved. During that period, agencies will have an opportunity to work alongside an assessment panel of experts in child welfare, the aim being to ensure that the high quality expertise that exists is not lost, that no agencies will have to close, and that the full range of post-adoption services are retained and developed. Arriving at this solution has entailed long debate and deliberation, but, as I said, by providing a further period of deliberation for faith-based adoption agencies, we will ensure that workable solutions are found.

There are many examples of successful adoptions by single gay and lesbian people. Enabling gay and lesbian couples to adopt jointly has contributed to increasing the number of adoptive families, allowing more children to be raised in loving, stable homes. That has been recognised by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering. BAAF, which has campaigned to widen the pool of prospective adopters to ensure that as many children as possible have the opportunity to be placed in loving homes, also makes the point that it is concerned to ensure that the expertise of Catholic agencies is maintained. It goes on to say that it welcomes the Prime Minister's proposals for the transition period that he announced on 29 January. BAAF believes that the transition period will lead to a sensible solution.

As others have said, the key to ensuring that this all happens successfully, as I believe it will, has to be the welfare and the interests of the child. These regulations still make that possible.