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Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:56 pm on 21st March 2007.

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Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 8:56 pm, 21st March 2007

My Lords, we have heard a most impressive speech from the noble Baroness. I will not follow her down those lines because I realise that she feels very strongly about this, as do we all. My concern about these regulations comes from a slightly different point of view. When the Minister said that we have come to the final chapter of having a fair society and have got the balance right, I thought to myself, "What is the balance?". It is 20 pages of regulations that need lawyers to make you understand what is right and what is not right, and what you are entitled to do and what you are not entitled to do. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York that these matters are deeply sensitive and ought to be dealt with in primary legislation, where they can be argued, teased out and considered. They should not be put in 20 pages of regulations, which cannot be amended and to which we have to say either yes or no.

I find it extraordinary that ministers of religion and vicars cannot say in the pulpit certain things, which their beliefs entitle them to say, for fear of being prosecuted. The noble Baroness may say that this is unlikely to happen, but can she give an undertaking that it will not happen and that they will not be prosecuted? The trouble is that if that is possible—and, certainly, the regulations raise that concern—people will believe that they had better not say something, for fear of being prosecuted. In other words, freedom of speech and freedom of thought will be curtailed by these regulations. That is quite unacceptable.

My other concern is with the way in which these regulations have gone through Parliament, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lady O'Cathain. The regulations were withdrawn and relaid three times in a week. The delegated legislation committee of another place sat one morning from 8.55 for an hour and a half. Apart from the three Front-Bench spokesmen, only one Back-Bencher participated. When the regulations were taken on the Floor of the House, there was no debate at all; they were just voted on. I simply do not believe that that is the right way in which to put through detailed, sensitive legislation that deals with people's rights, thoughts and religion. It must be given better consideration than that. That is why I hope that your Lordships will agree with my noble friend Lady O'Cathain and not agree to these regulations.

But that brings in another funny problem. A week ago, we discussed how the Government thought that the House of Lords ought to be reformed. Yet these regulations could not be reformed or even discussed in the House of Commons. If we are to reform Chambers of Parliament, one really wonders whether we should not start down the other end.

It would be odd if your Lordships were to reject these regulations, which have not been considered or voted on in another place. But, for all that, they ought to be rejected in order to give the Government time to think again. That is not being obstinate, because there is real difficulty and anxiety on this issue. These problems must be resolved and at least discussed.