Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of Baroness O'Cathain Baroness O'Cathain Conservative 5:45 pm, 15th December 2009

May I continue? I shall write to the noble Baroness.

Apparently the Government have been advised by the Whips that a Bill of this size should require eight or nine Committee days, but they want to cut it down to four or five. I believe that that is totally unacceptable. We will not be able to hold our heads up in terms of scrutinising Bills by pandering to the Government's perfected art, shown in the Commons, of limiting scrutiny. In the interests of avoiding further undermining of Christianity in this country and avoiding injustice, I beg noble Lords to stand their ground and put down as many amendments as they feel they need to do for the Committee stage.

We are dealing with the vital issue of religious liberty and free speech. In addition, I believe that the Bill puts a huge, expensive bureaucratic burden on business and charitable organisations, which, at a time of severe recession, is inexcusable. I ask your Lordships to think seriously about this. The other place does not appear to care about ever-increasing bureaucratic regulation.

Some of the Bill's provisions are not controversial and are widely supported, yet in my view any positives in the Bill are surely outweighed by the negatives I have discussed. The problems I have mentioned so far are caused by existing equality law. So even if the Bill confined itself to consolidating current law, it would not enjoy my support. The examples of adoption agencies and care homes show that the present law is unjust and must be remedied. The Bill continues that injustice. In debates on the earlier 2005 Equality Bill I moved amendments to protect freedom of conscience for those in business. The Government disagreed, and Schedule 23 to the new Bill continues the policy of giving no protection in this area.

However, the present Bill goes much further. Part 11 introduces public sector equality duties so all-encompassing that the implications could be vast. What are public bodies going to make of a duty to promote religion and a duty to promote sexual orientation? As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, even the BBC and Channel 4 have voiced fears. The Bill would drastically limit the freedom of churches and religious organisations to choose to employ people, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has said. It significantly narrows the existing exception which allows churches to refuse a post to those whose lifestyles are incompatible with Church doctrine. It could mean that churches are left without protection even for clergy posts. Leading employment lawyer and author John Bowers QC confirms this position. The Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and many other religious groups, not only Christian, are very alarmed. Losing the right to choose a church minister who shares their beliefs would strike at the heart of freedom of association for religious believers. The exemption which has existed until now must be maintained.

The implications of the Bill are far too great for it to be rammed through Parliament before the impending general election. I fear that this is the hidden agenda of the Government in view of the comments I have already alluded to concerning the restriction of amendments.

On careful reflection, I believe that equality is morphing into an ideology hostile to the Christian faith. I accept that many Members of this House never intended this to happen, but at grass roots level the equality and diversity agenda is causing increasingly severe problems for Christians in many walks of life; at work and at school, in the media and in the public sphere. The evidence therefore shows that we must make major amendments to the Bill to meet these concerns, or call a halt to it altogether until a solution is found.