Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 6:25 pm on 15th December 2009.

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Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop 6:25 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, who made a very important speech which merits rereading after the debate. I add the ritual acknowledgement that there is a certain lack of gender balance on these Benches-exactly the opposite of the government Front Benches, as was pointed out earlier. You cannot win.

I also thank the Leader of the House for her introduction to the debate, which was particularly helpful and gracious. I was grateful for her assurance that there was no proposal to abolish Christmas. Given her duties in the House this week, she may also be grateful that Christmas is not being abolished this year.

During the course of this debate and consideration of the Bill, there will be expressions of concern on behalf of churches and faith groups. We have already heard something of that. Indeed, I have engaged in it a little with the noble Lord, Lord Alli. The first point that he raised is worthy of discussion but he would need to take into account also the ban on civil marriages being held in religious bodies. It would have to be taken in the whole. Some sort of permissive arrangement for faith communities is certainly worthy of careful discussion. I am sure that I can say that from these Benches.

I express some regret that the religious aspects and reservations have come to the fore too quickly. So much of the Bill stands in the broad stream of Christian and Judaeo-Christian ethical thinking: the dignity of the individual created in God's image; the care for the stranger in the midst in the Old Testament; and the transcending of cultural and racial barriers in the New Testament, such as when St Paul spoke of the Church as being open to Jews and Greeks, slaves and the free, male and female, because Jesus Christ was Lord and saviour of everyone without partiality. Such ideas received a strong puff of wind in the Enlightenment. What we are discussing today can be seen as part of a great historical movement towards greater equality in society that includes the development of democracy, the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, free access to education and healthcare, and so on. We can all be grateful for the benefits of these huge advances in society and the dignity and rights of individuals.

Clause 1 is significant in this regard. It places a duty on a range of public bodies, including the Government of the day, to take strategic decisions with a view to reducing the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage. This programmatic opening clause is carefully phrased, with a focus on addressing the inequalities of outcome, rather than the underlying socio-economic inequalities themselves. I think an earlier speaker spoke of narrowing the gap between rich and poor, but that is not quite what the clause says. It deals with the outcomes of the inequalities in economic terms.

Research now overwhelmingly links poorer outcomes to underlying inequalities in wealth and income. The recent book The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett sets out the evidence in a compelling way. Yet our recent experience over 30 years has been of a growing divide between rich and poor, which even 13 years of a Labour Administration have not reversed, although it has, I think, more or less maintained the position that it inherited. The financial crisis of the past two years can be seen as directly linked to the growth of excessive inequalities in salaries and bonuses, both within the financial sector and between the financial and other sectors.

It seems that, for all its provisions, many of which are to be welcomed, the Bill skirts around the most fundamental issues of inequality in our society. Its sheer size should not deflect us from its limitations. Has any previous Bill had Explanatory Notes running to more than 1,000 paragraphs? If you gave the most reverend Primate the Archbishop a bauble for his Christmas tree for each paragraph, it would have 1,002 baubles on it. Paragraph 80 of the notes refers to,

"the ordinary user of the Bill".

Who will be the ordinary user?

The underlying problem is that it concentrates too quickly and too excessively on the rights of the individual, essential as these are. There was an interesting interchange in the recent debate on the humble Address, to which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop himself alluded, between the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who I am pleased to see is in his place. The right reverend Prelate said:

"The Equality Bill is grounded in a view of society as a collection of individuals with rights but fails to take account of the needs of communities to flourish. That can quickly lead to an authoritarian imposition of an individualistic understanding of difference rather than a celebration of plurality in society".-[Hansard, 26/11/09; col. 492.]

The noble Lord, Lord Lester, responded that EU law is,

"based on the rights of individuals, not of groups".-[Hansard, 26/11/09; col. 502.]

Perhaps, but that does not mean that it is necessarily correct. We have not just replaced the divine right of kings with the divine right of particular aspects of EU law, particularly as we frame our legislation here.

I say that because there has been too much emphasis on individual freedom in the economic realm that has led to the growing inequalities of socio-economic outcome over the past 30 years, which are now more and more clearly documented. Societies that overemphasise individual freedom and rights, as opposed to responsibility, duty and communal rights, simply generate a growing underclass, well evidenced in the growth of the prison population and all the problems coming from that.

The interplay of individual rights with the rights of other individuals and the broader rights of society and the socio-cultural and religious communities in society, will occupy us at a number of points as the Bill makes its passage. I conclude with one example that has not been mentioned so far-it has not received much attention, which illustrates the point. I refer to the provisions in relation to those who are undergoing, or who have undergone, a change of gender. Society holds different views about the basis for gender reassignment, and there are different views in some of the faith communities.

Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that the Church of England cannot quite make up its mind, and it is left to individual bishops to decide whether a transgender person can be accepted for ordination. There are conscientious and sincerely held beliefs on different sides in this matter. As a society overall, the current anti-discrimination provisions seem to have been in a proper balance, but the Bill extends the legal protection to those who claim either an intention to transgender, or who claim to have done so without any recourse to medical advice or supervision. I speak as someone who accepts the possibility of gender dysphoria and the treatments that professional psychiatrists and medicine can offer. I know from personal and pastoral experience how distressing it is for somebody to have a sense of being in the wrong gender, but I do not think that society as a whole has a right to expect that anyone who seeks legal recognition in a new gender should have followed proper medical assessment and advice. Anything less seems to be open to abuse. It is not that it should be just a matter of individual decision of individual rights.

I look forward to the Committee stage of the Bill.