There are many issues in this Bill, but I intend to concentrate on two: religious freedom and the process of scrutiny of the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, stated that faith is not an immutable characteristic. This is untrue, particularly in my case. I know that I could never change my faith, and there are many millions with the same view. Let us not forget that many have gone to the stake for it over the ages. This is the time of year when our country's Christian heritage is most obvious. Many of us will participate in carol services and other services, proudly watching grandchildren, children and godchildren taking part in nativity plays, all celebrating the great news of the birth of the saviour Christ.
This country recognises the unique place of the Christian faith in its national life not just at Christmas but every day. There are many examples of this, including daily prayers here in Parliament, memorial services around the country, and church schools, which continue to be popular with Christian and non-Christian parents alike. However, the Christian majority in this country is renowned for being the vast silent majority. Our voice is not strong enough and is not heard often enough. We certainly punch way below our weight. This struck me forcibly on Sunday when I read the interview with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Sunday Telegraph. His observations were wholly accurate. He said:
"The trouble with a lot of government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it's an eccentricity, it's practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities ... The effect is to de-normalise faith, to intensify the perception that faith is not part of our bloodstream".
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester warned recently that Britain is increasingly becoming,
"a cold place for Christians".
The past 12 months alone have seen several disturbing cases of Christians suffering unjust treatment for their religious beliefs. They have been mentioned in the press and include a nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient, a Christian care home stripped of £13,000 of public funding by Brighton council, and a hostel support worker suspended for discussing Christian beliefs with a colleague. Many more, of course, go unreported. What do these cases have in common? The Christians involved have all suffered in the name of "equality and diversity". Supporters of this agenda may have noble intentions, including a desire to protect Christians, but it is now apparent that all too often it becomes a tool for punishing them.
Equality laws have created some of the worst injustice. The case of the Christian care home in Brighton, which I have just mentioned, was motivated by the 2007 sexual orientation regulations. These same regulations have forced several Roman Catholic adoption agencies to close; yet these are the very agencies that accounted for one-third of all voluntary sector adoptions. Their contribution to our society has been huge.
Christian principles have woven the fabric of our democracy: the belief in the unique worth of every person, freedom of religion, freedom of association and freedom of speech. The rule of law in this country is based on the principle of equality in the eyes of God. Parliament and the judiciary have upheld these principles for centuries. All our constitutional freedoms have developed from Christian principles. Throughout history Christians have been at the forefront of humanitarian efforts. We heard about the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York going to Cumbria and sorting out problems for people involved in the floods. That is not religious preaching or liturgy; it is pure humanitarianism.
Christians have also been at the forefront of establishing education and welfare projects in all parts of the world, and have led the way in the abolition of slavery. All this is real equality. In our own age, Christian groups are working so hard to free trafficked women and those who have been forced into prostitution, as I have already said in a debate in this House. Why are Christians being increasingly marginalised in Britain in 2009? Poring over the evidence, I have no doubt that the equality and diversity agenda lies near the heart of the problem.
Yet today we are considering this huge, all-embracing and cumbersome Equality Bill. This is the biggest piece of equality legislation ever put before Parliament, and in the current culture I fear that it could serve to make things worse. I believe that, for Christian freedom, it is the single most damaging Bill to come before the House in my 18 years as a Member.
I am deeply concerned about another aspect affecting this Bill; namely, the scrutiny process. In 18 years the scrutiny of legislation in the Commons has diminished significantly, and I am not the first person to make that statement. There was a problem with the Coroners and Justice Bill there when murder was not even considered. Despite what the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said-that the Bill was well scrutinised in the House of Commons-five and a half hours on the Floor of the House to have both Report stage and Third Reading together does not equate with good scrutiny. The Bill caused uproar in the Commons. The Government appeared to renege on an offer to discuss with the opposition parties how much time would be given to debate the Bill. Just one day was allocated for the remaining stages despite more than 200 amendments having been tabled. As a result, the guillotine fell part way through the second of seven groupings, before the Minister had even begun responding to the debate.
More than half of over 200 amendments that had been selected by the Speaker went undebated. Only those in the first group actually got a response from the Minister at the Dispatch Box. Even today, on the first occasion that I have taken part in a Second Reading debate, we have been asked to limit our contributions. This is a Second Reading debate, not a timed debate. I believe that there is some ulterior motive in all of this. Last week a meeting was held by the Leader of the House and the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, at which groups concerned with the Bill were told not to put down amendments, not to provoke long discussions and not to make interventions, because the Government wanted to curtail the Committee stage of the Bill.