Second Reading (Continued)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 7:02 pm on 15th December 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Macdonald of Tradeston Lord Macdonald of Tradeston Labour 7:02 pm, 15th December 2009

My Lords, although I am generally supportive of the Equality Bill, it is disappointing that it fails to tackle some of the unnecessary discrimination in employment. I speak to two specific issues in that context. First, there is the exception that permits organisations with a religious ethos to discriminate in employment when they are working under contract to provide public services on behalf of the state. Secondly, there is the possible discrimination against teachers in state-funded faith schools.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for his incisive analysis of the problems of religion and belief as defined and deployed in the Bill, which I need not elaborate. Nor will I contest the assertions of the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, except to say that as chairman of the All-Party Humanist Group, I only wish that I could share her belief that secularism is advancing across the UK. That is certainly not my impression.

The wording of the "work exceptions" for employers with a religious ethos, which permit them to discriminate in their employment on religious grounds, have been harmonised in the Bill. The new definition of exemptions for religious employers in the Equality Bill clarifies the present law by stating that any requirement that an applicant or employee must be of a particular religion or belief must be "an occupational requirement" and,

"a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".

This applies to all employers, including those with an ethos based on religious belief, and is to be welcomed. However, as the Bill is drafted, the exceptions described would apply even when a religious organisation is working under contract to a public authority to provide a public service on its behalf.

By extending the exception in Schedule 9, paragraph 3, of the Bill to religious organisations working under contract to provide these public service, the Bill could potentially subject a large number of posts currently in the public sector to religious tests. This could, for instance, provide favourable employment prospects to small numbers of religious believers. Conversely, it could rule out large numbers of posts for those with the wrong religion or with none. It could threaten the employment or promotion of staff transferred under a contract from the public sector employer to a religious one.

There is no good reason for allowing religious organisations performing public functions on behalf of a public authority to apply religious tests to their jobs. These concerns are shared by trade unions, the British Humanist Association, progressive religious organisations and others, including the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which, in its recent report on the Equality Bill stated:

"We are concerned about the status of employees of organisations delivering public services who find themselves as employees of organisations with a religious ethos who have been contracted to provide the public service. They have a right not to be subjected to religious discrimination on the basis of the ethos of the contracting organisation if they are otherwise performing their job satisfactorily".

I ask the Minister to agree that the extension of Schedule 9, paragraph 3, is not satisfactory, and that it puts the jobs and job prospects of potentially thousands of public service workers at risk if their work is contracted to an organisation with a religious ethos.

Having expressed these concerns about the exceptions made for organisations with a religious ethos, I register our continuing concern about the ability of faith schools to discriminate against staff. There is no present need even to demonstrate the occupational requirement in order to discriminate on grounds of religion. In practice this means that a voluntary-aided school can impose religious requirements on all teaching posts and can also take religion into account in promotion and pay decisions without ever needing to show that the teacher being discriminated against needs to perform any religious role at all. Furthermore, any teachers in a voluntary-aided school might be dismissed or sanctioned for conduct incompatible with the tenets of the religion of the school, which could cover a wide and disputed range of conduct.

We anticipate that the tolerant majority of faith schools would not use the full extent of their powers to discriminate in employment. Indeed, many faith schools employ many teachers with many different beliefs. However, the reality is that those staff have few legal rights if they are discriminated against on religious grounds. This is surely not a satisfactory situation. The Bill could be amended in ways that would permit faith schools to discriminate by religion against employees but only according to the same rules as other organisations with a religious ethos.

I conclude by asking the Government to look again at these matters, which could restrict jobs to workers of the right religion, a requirement that, by definition, the majority of citizens can never meet.