I beg to move
That this Assembly notes that the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 have been laid in Westminster in advance of the equivalent regulations for the rest of the United Kingdom and calls upon the Government to withdraw these regulations and leave this issue to be determined by the Northern Ireland Assembly upon restoration.
Let me be clear from the outset that the motion is not about homophobia or gay bashing, as some have accused it of being. It is about something far more important — religious freedom in this country.
The motion is also about the role of the Assembly in considering important legislation that is meant to reflect the will of the people whom we represent. It is about the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland asserting their right to influence laws that will have such a significant impact on the lives of our constituents. That right has not been properly exercised in respect of these regulations.
There has been inadequate time for the public to respond to the initial consultation on the regulations. The Government’s consultation document, ‘Getting Equal: Proposals to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services in Northern Ireland’, was launched in Northern Ireland on 29 July 2006, and the consultation closed on 25 September. That eight-week period included the entire month of August, which is one of the main holiday periods in Northern Ireland.
The Government’s own guidelines state that public consultations should be held over a standard minimum period of 12 weeks. We had only eight weeks to consider the draft legislation. In the rest of the United Kingdom, the consultation lasted for the 12-week period. Why was Northern Ireland treated differently, and our consultation period reduced? The Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) has given no reason thus far to justify the shortness of the consultation period.
The regulations were made on 8 November 2006, just six weeks and two days after the public consultation closed on 25 September 2006. Do the Government really expect us to believe that six weeks was long enough to consider the 373 responses and to address the complex issues raised in those responses?
In a letter to my right hon Friend Dr Paisley dated 22 November 2006, the Secretary of State said that there had been 3,000 responses to the consultation in Great Britain, and that consequently the decision had been made to delay their implementation, to:
“ensure a full and proper account was taken of them”, that is, of the responses. In fact, the Government have delayed the making of the regulations in England, Scotland and Wales until April 2007.
If we take the 373 responses in Northern Ireland as a proportion of the overall response in the United Kingdom, we find that they represent some 11% of the total responses. However, the population of Northern Ireland is only 2·8% of the total population of the United Kingdom. Therefore the response rate in Northern Ireland was much higher than that in Great Britain, yet there has been no delay in implementing the regulations here in order to ensure that a full and proper account is taken of those responses. Again I ask the question: why is Northern Ireland being treated differently?
In England, Scotland and Wales, the difficult issues raised by the consultation process were described as resulting in the need to:
“make sure that there is effective protection from discrimination while ensuring that people have the right to religious freedom”.
That view was expressed in an interview given on BBC Radio 5 on 26 October 2006. There is nothing to suggest that the complex issues raised on the mainland do not need to be addressed in Northern Ireland.
On Friday 8 December, ‘The Independent’ reported that there is a split in the Cabinet on this matter between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his colleague the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly. The report states that:
It continues by claiming that the Secretary of State:
“has defied a call by Ruth Kelly, the Cabinet minister responsible for equality, to hold fire until a common approach has been agreed.”
We have a situation in which the Secretary of State in Great Britain with responsibility for this legislation is saying to our Secretary of State, according to that newspaper report, that he should hold back until we get a common approach across the United Kingdom, and yet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland seems determined to press ahead against that advice.
The Government’s analysis of the responses to the public consultation in Northern Ireland was only published on Monday 27 November 2006. That is almost three weeks after the Government finalised the regulations.
Therefore it seems unlikely that the Government analysed properly the responses to the consultation paper before making the regulations. Surely Ms Kelly is right in saying that more time is needed.
Additionally, the published regulation (3)(3) is a new harassment law, but no formal question was put on harassment in the consultation paper ‘Getting Equal: Proposals to outlaw discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services in Northern Ireland’. In fact, paragraphs 4.13 to 4.15 of that paper set out reasons for not including harassment in the regulations. Paragraph 4.15 specifically states:
“On the basis of the complex arguments put forward we are minded to accept that it is not appropriate to legislate for harassment within these regulations.”
The regulations now contain provisions on harassment, but there has been no proper consultation on that important aspect of the regulations.
The regulations threaten to override the consciences and rights of free speech of Christians and others who object to homosexual practice. That consequence contravenes articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, article 9 of the convention is given statutory force by the Human Rights Act 1998.
It is also worth noting that all six of the world’s major religions are opposed to homosexual practice, and Judaism, Islam and Christianity all teach that it is sinful. Not all hon Members will agree with that view, but Christians and people of other faiths sincerely hold it. Given that these are new restrictions, the regulations will interfere with one’s freedom to practise one’s religion. The restrictions will apply to all aspects of society, and it is proposed that they should apply to the religious teachings, observances and practices, and services that religious organisations offer to the community. The Government say that exemptions are built into the regulations. However, those do not provide adequate protection for religious groups, churches and organisations.
Regulation 16 does not apply to the harassment provisions. For example, if baptism, communion or church membership is denied to a homosexual and the minister of the church meets with that person to explain in orthodox theological terms the religious belief that justified that denial, that person could bring a claim for harassment, complaining that the minister’s approach had the effect of violating dignity or creating a “humiliating or offensive environment.”
Regulation 16(4)(a) says that:
“Nothing in these Regulations shall make it unlawful for a minister —
(a) to restrict participation in activities carried on in the performance of his functions”.
That exemption covers the minister’s refusal; however, it does not cover any subsequent explanations that are given by the church. Therefore a church could be sued for harassment for the way in which it refused a homosexual membership or for the way in which any other aspect of its religious observances were refused.
If I had time, I would give other examples as to how this legislation will have an impact on Christian bookshops, on Christian organisations that run old people’s homes and on Christian owners of bed-and-breakfast premises. The regulations will cause major concerns for Christians who are involved in life’s many normal activities and who believe that they have the right to exercise their religious conscience.
The harassment provisions also apply to state and independent schools and to universities. Therefore if a teacher teaches the orthodox Christian belief that homosexual practice is sinful, a pupil who self-identifies as gay could bring a claim for harassment, complaining that such teaching had the effect of violating their dignity or of creating an intimidating, “humiliating or offensive environment.” Is that the kind of situation in which we want to place our teachers? Have hon Members had the opportunity to consider that?
The freedom to teach religious belief also engages article 2 of the first protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides that:
“In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”
How are we going to uphold that right in Northern Ireland when these regulations become law? How will parents have the right to send their children to school to have religious instruction based on biblical Christian teaching when it is possible that, under these regulations, teachers will be prevented from providing that instruction, or could be sued for harassment if they do? That is a matter for everyone in Northern Ireland who cares about religious freedom in this part of the United Kingdom.
There is no religious harassment law in Northern Ireland with respect to the provision of goods, facilities and services, yet harassment laws on sexual orientation have been inserted into these regulations. That is completely inconsistent with the declared aim of creating equality of protection for all categories of persons.
Part IV, article 31, paragraph 5(a) of the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 provides broad exceptions for schools. However, the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 set down blanket anti-discrimination and harassment laws for educational establishments. Clearly, there is a contradiction between those two laws.
These regulations are far reaching. They will impact on many areas of life, and, therefore, will affect people in all areas of society in Northern Ireland — in education, business, the public sector, and especially those in the religious life and in religious organisations.
The Churches have spoken out very clearly on the issues. For example, in an article in ‘The Catholic Herald’ on 1 December 2006, the Roman Catholic Church in Great Britain warned the Government that if the regulations are implemented on the mainland, then the Church will close the nine adoption agencies it runs, rather than be forced to place children for adoption with homosexual couples.
The role of the Churches in adoption, in social life and in civil society will be seriously undermined by these regulations. People in Northern Ireland depend on the Churches. The Churches provide support at community level and they are involved in the social life of our community. Nonetheless, these regulations have the capacity to undermine that involvement. Who will take up that work in the future?
In the Anglican Church, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, warned the Government that the regulations would certainly affect a great deal of charitable work done by the Churches and others, and that it will be the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has described the regulations as a worrying intrusion of legislation into the affairs of faith.
The Methodist, Baptist, Free Presbyterian and Elim Churches, and many other denominations, have expressed similar concerns. The Evangelical Alliance has made representations to the Government to press for the withdrawal of the regulations, and the Christian Institute is preparing a legal challenge in the event that the Secretary of State decides to proceed with implementation from 1 January 2007.
In his letter to my right hon Friend Rev Dr Ian Paisley, the Secretary of State confirmed that:
“These Regulations have not arisen through European law, unlike those relating to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in employment;”
He went on to say that:
“if a re-established Assembly wished to revoke the Regulations, legally I believe they would be entitled to do so.”
Surely, Madam Speaker, that is a tacit acceptance that the Assembly has the right to consider and to determine this legislation, yet the Secretary of State seeks to deny Members that right.
The issue before hon Members this morning is that for the above reason, and all the others that I have outlined, the Secretary of State should withdraw these regulations and leave the issue to be determined by the Assembly upon restoration. I call on all parties in the Assembly to support the motion, and, in doing so, uphold its right to legislate on issues that quite properly are the concern of many people across the community in Northern Ireland.
I remind Members that the Business Committee agreed that this would be a two-hour debate. I already have more than enough Members to allow for a two-hour debate, and if every Member takes the full 10 minutes we will be over time. However, I do not want to restrict the speeches of any Members.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. At the third session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Strommen, speaking on behalf of 54 states including 18 members of the Human Rights Council, said:
“At its recent session, the Human Rights Council received extensive evidence of human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, including deprivation of the rights to life, freedom from violence and torture … We express deep concern at these ongoing human rights violations.”
Ireland and Britain were two of the states which signed that.
I welcome the fact that the House is having a debate on sexual orientation, but it is the wrong debate. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy First Minister designate, and Arlene and I as human rights and equality spokespersons, should be sitting together to work out a comprehensive programme for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. We should be talking about how to protect people who suffer as a result of homophobic attacks. There has been an increase of 175% in reported attacks — how many do not get reported? We should be talking about how to resource the organisations that work for the welfare of the gay, lesbian and bisexual community. We should be talking about how to link human rights and the equality sector to bring about change. Everybody should have the same rights and legal protections — there is no halfway house. You cannot have equality for some.
Ba chóir go mbeadh na cearta céanna agus an chosaint dhlíthiúil chéanna ag gach duine. Ba chóir comhionannas a bheith ann do chách — ní féidir idirdhealú a dhéanamh.
Despite what Jeffrey Donaldson said, the DUP is using homophobia for political gain. It is attempting to whip up homophobic sentiments that lead to discrimination and violence. It is setting the context for gay bashing and the human rights violations that the United Nations referred to in its communiqué.
This motion comes from a party that has a track record on gay and lesbian rights. In 2004, DUP councillor Arthur Templeton was found guilty of harassment and fined after making homophobic taunts against a council candidate. In November 2005, another DUP councillor, Maurice Mills, shared other pearls of wisdom when he described hurricane Katrina as having been sent by God to punish gay and lesbian people. Ian Óg, probably not wanting to be outdone, said in relation to the gay marriage of former UUP adviser Steven King:
“Most people in Northern Ireland find homosexual relationships offensive and indeed obnoxious and I say that from the position of research I have done.”
That is serious stuff. Although members of the DUP wring their hands and say: “Of course we are for law and order”, and “We abhor any crime against anyone” and “People should go to the police”, they fail to take responsibility for actions that may arise from their words. By failing to provide leadership, they are part of setting the context for an attack on a young man in a club or a park. Martin Luther King said:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Order. I remind Members of my earlier statement about criticising Members of other legislatures, or councillors, who are not in this House to defend themselves. I also ask Members to exercise caution so that they do not misrepresent other Members’ comments. I draw the attention of the House to the rulings recorded in the ‘Northern Ireland Assembly Companion — Rulings, Convention and Practice’, pages 81-82:
“no Member may make an interpretation of what another Member said … To quote a Member as having said something that he or she did not say is unparliamentary.”
That applies not just to Ms Ruane, but to whoever speaks in future. Members should be careful about how they interpret each other’s remarks.
That is not a point of order, Mr Paisley. You have made your point, which will be recorded in Hansard, but it is not a point of order. Mr Hussey is not in the Chamber otherwise he could help me. I remind Members that, when they raise a point of order, they must cite the relevant Standing Order. A point of order, or a point of information, that does not relate to a Standing Order will not be accepted.
I apologise, Ms Ruane. You will be compensated for the loss of time.
Are you challenging my ruling, Mr Maskey? I try to give all Members an opportunity to speak. In every parliamentary institution, there will always be talk across the Benches. That constitutes good debate. I will stop anything that impedes good debate practice, as I have done up to now.
It is a smokescreen to say that it would be better for the regulations to be passed in this House rather than Westminster. The real issue is that there should be no delay in bringing forward legislation. The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community is protected in the South of Ireland, and these regulations will provide protection in the North of Ireland. That is to be welcomed, and there should be no delay.
What are the effects of gay bashing? What are the effects of delaying the implementation of rights?
The findings of all reputable research into the effects of homophobia show that the gay community is disproportionately affected by suicide and self-harm. Ireland — North and South — has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe. It is a poor excuse for politicians to say that they are defending the rights of Christians to discriminate. Many Christians support the legislation and do not believe in discrimination.
There is much hysteria and misinformation about this legislation. Opponents claim that primary schools will be forced to actively promote civil partnerships to the same extent that they teach about the importance of marriage. They also claim that a printing shop run by a Christian will be forced to print fliers promoting gay sex. They claim that it will force a family-run bed-and-breakfast establishment to let a double room to a transsexual couple, even if the family think it in the best interests of their children to refuse to allow that couple into their home.
Let us debunk some of those myths. Printers will not be forced to print fliers promoting gay sex — or any other form of sex. They will, however, not be allowed to hang up a sign saying: “No gays served here”. Regulation 9 simply prohibits educational establishments from refusing to accept students on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Regulation 7(2)(a) provides that anyone providing accommodation —
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You correctly reminded Members about the context in which they should cite the previous remarks of other Members. Could you advise the House under which Standing Order you have ruled that Members may interrupt willy-nilly when they feel like it without challenge? You have challenged Members only twice so far.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I accept that entirely. However, some Members are continually interrupting. You expressed a view to me privately that that is how Members from that party participate in debates. However, I do not accept that this is the proper way for a sitting to be chaired.
As I said before, Mr Maskey, when you commented about order in the Chamber, all parliamentary institutions have cross-Chamber comments. I will stop loud comments that interrupt the Member who has the Floor.
I do my best to keep order. The fact that this Chamber is smaller than those in comparable institutions has a bearing on that. However, I ask Members to allow whoever has the Floor to have his or her say. Members can ask the Member who is speaking to give way. I ask Members not to conduct loud conversations that prevent me from hearing what is being said by the Member who has the Floor.
I will just have to get a louder voice and speak over the interruptions. [Interruption.]
Are you finished George? I wish to pay tribute to the gay and lesbian community for their courage and bravery in standing up for their rights, and to the other groups that are supporting them. I call on all groups who are fighting for rights to stand alongside them because they should not stand alone.
The motion is part of yesterday’s agenda — part of the bad old days of the past. Members should move on and show leadership. The days of second-class citizenship and hiding our identities are gone. How does the motion fit in with our equality briefs?
The DUP talks a lot about law and order and respect for the law. I hope that it is going to uphold section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and these regulations when they come into effect in January 2007. Is the DUP’s support for law and order selective; does it only support its idea of law and order? Let us move from the dark ages to the light of the twenty-first century. There is no room for discrimination in this century, and where it happens Sinn Féin will challenge it. No one should stand alone and suffer discrimination — the people who should stand alone are the discriminators.
Members should read the results of the recent Mori poll, which asked 1,100 people if they believed it was right for businesses to discriminate against gay, lesbian and bisexual people. An overwhelming 88% said no, showing that attitudes among young people are the most progressive in terms of gay and lesbian rights. Gay bashing is not even a vote winner. The DUP should not dig a hole for itself. It should stop digging and join the rest of us to support anti-discrimination legislation that protects everyone. One never knows when it might be needed. Go raibh maith agat.
Madam Speaker, I shall endeavour to help you by keeping to the motion, which is primarily procedural. It asks where the authority resides in the decision-making process with respect to Northern Ireland legislation. That authority should be in the Northern Ireland Assembly and not in a process that is taking legislation through Westminster for January 2007. Although, recognising that that is the primary element of the motion, nonetheless, there is substance attached to the motion as regards the impact that the legislation will have on the communities within Northern Ireland. Let me deal with those two points.
I heard Ms Ruane from the Sinn Féin party talking on the radio this morning about the importance of respecting international law. I am conscious that Sinn Féin at almost every turn refers to the rights and equality of the people in, as it says, the “North of Ireland”. I am also conscious that the Government, at every turn, refers to rights and equality. Indeed, the Government, in its latest commentary on Northern Ireland, the St Andrews Agreement on 13 October 2006, made reference to rights on the first page of the document:
“ equality and human rights at the heart of the new dispensation in Northern Ireland”.
The Ulster Unionist party asks for rights and equality.
I am a citizen of the United Kingdom, and I expect the same rights that are afforded to its other citizens — I expect parity of esteem with them. The United Kingdom Government must remember that, through the Council of Europe, they have signed up to and ratified a convention that dictates that political discourse of this nature is to be applied equally throughout the United Kingdom.
The Government have also signed up to and ratified measures to the effect that we, as a region of the United Kingdom, should have effective participation in the decision-making process. However, not one of those standards that the Government have ratified, and which they are supposed to endorse, is being applied in their actions with regard to The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006. Mr Donaldson dealt with that matter fulsomely, so I need not go into that in any great detail.
The rest of the United Kingdom was given three months in which to respond to the consultation on the regulations, but Northern Ireland was allowed two months. Why was the rest of the United Kingdom given a longer time in which to consult on the regulations? That does not represent equality and parity of esteem in the political process that the Government have signed up to.
By their own volition, and by the decisions that they have made in introducing the legislation, the Government are denying all Members the same rights that others will have. The Government need not say, as they have, that they will change the Order-in-Council system to make it a legislative process. That will not give us true, effective participation.
Therefore, the Government have failed on the process, which represents the substantive part of the motion. The Government have failed, by their own standard, when they announced what they would do and then failed to uphold what they signed up to through the Council of Europe. Therefore, they have failed the citizens of Northern Ireland by the manner in which they have adopted The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006.
Madam Speaker, you said that Members should be brief in their contributions so that every Member who wished to speak would have time to do so. I will endeavour to do that.
The second element of substance is not inconsequential. Sinn Féin has spoken of homophobia, and has said that the motion is gay bashing. Mr Donaldson has said that that is not so. I concur that it is not gay bashing, as does the Ulster Unionist Party. We respect the law, which permits gay and lesbian relationships, and civil partnerships.
Will the Member go further and agree that the House should condemn any attacks on anyone, and that that condemnation should be unequivocal? Does he agree that if every political party in Northern Ireland did that, we would be much better off?
It goes without saying that we condemn any attack from wherever it comes and regardless of its motive. People should operate, at all times, within the law and subscribe to it.
The issue of rights is central to the debate. The law states that the gay and lesbian community has rights, and we subscribe to those rights. Religious Christian denominations also have rights. Certain questions must be addressed, and I am not fully satisfied that that has been done. Mr Donaldson went into those questions in detail, and I will remind the Chamber of a couple of them. If a Christian organisation wishes to found an adoption society, it can do so, and if it wishes that those for whom they will furnish a child are in a male-female relationship, it may say so. Should the gay and lesbian community be allowed to challenge that wish, and thus ensure that its rights are allowed to infringe the rights of the Christian community? There are two rights competing in that example, and they must be addressed.
Caitríona Ruane said that printers would not be forced to print flyers that advocate gay practices. If a Christian bookshop has books of a Christian ethos including Christian principles — Members know what they are, so I need not repeat them — and a gay or lesbian person comes into the shop, picks up a book and disagrees with what it says, does that person feel harassed, and will that bookshop, therefore, from 1 January 2007, be breaking the law? Those are fundamental questions.
This afternoon, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium is holding a seminar to celebrate Human Rights Day. The date of 10 December is a hallmark day for the International Society for Human Rights; it was the date in 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Sinn Féin mentioned the UN in its address this morning.
It is worth examining those fundamental freedoms that were agreed on 10 December 1948, which, along with two other covenants, formed the International Bill of Human Rights. Article 16 of that declaration is interesting. The words that it uses are important:
“Men and women … have the right to marry and to found a family … The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”
I quote from the UN, not from Ulster Unionist Party policy.
I am not saying that a declaration that was written in 1948 is sacrosanct today, because there have been changes in the law since then. The law changes in order to reflect changes in society. Members often quote from Hansard; remember that Mr Hansard went to jail because he took information from Parliament. Imagine if today people were put in jail for taking documentation out of the Chamber. As society changes, the law changes.
Nonetheless, Madam Speaker, certain fundamental issues must be addressed. The process by which the Government are putting the regulations through not only denies the proper process of equality in the treatment of the law throughout the United Kingdom, but denies the rights of people who duly feel concerned and are mindful of what the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights says about the importance of the family. The family must be protected.
I oppose the motion. Let us be clear about what the regulations do: they protect people from discrimination. They ensure that gay, lesbian and transgender people have the same basic rights as the rest of us. Just as it is illegal to refuse to serve someone in a bar because of their religion, it will be illegal to refuse to serve someone because of their sexual orientation; just as it is illegal to deny people access to accommodation on the grounds of their race and nationality, it will be illegal to do so because of their sexual orientation. All that the regulations do is afford gay and lesbian people the same protection that is enjoyed by women, the disabled and ethnic minorities, for example.
The same protection has existed in the South for the past six years under the Equal Status Act 2000. If we would not accept, “No Dogs, No Irish”, why should we allow, “No Dogs, No Gays”? If we demand equality for some, should we not extend it to all? Let us be clear about the terrible extent of the poisonous effects of tolerating discrimination and harassment. One of the key areas covered by the regulations is education. A 2002 Department of Education survey of young people who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or transgender in Northern Ireland found that 44% were bullied at school because of their sexuality, 29% had attempted suicide, and 26% had self-harmed.
In those circumstances, can anyone seriously argue against a prohibition on discrimination and harassment at school? It is only by getting serious about tackling harassment that we can change those appalling figures.
Surely the introduction of these regulations will create the possibility that teachers in schools, and others, can be harassed because of their religious beliefs? Surely two wrongs do not make a right. If it is right to introduce the regulations, why does the hon Lady think that the Minister in Great Britain is delaying their implementation?
I take on board the Member’s points. The Member has said that the regulations will prevent teachers from teaching against homosexuality in school. That is untrue — all that the regulations will prevent is discrimination and harassment, not the teaching of religious doctrine. Harassment occurs only if there is unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
In opposing these regulations, the DUP is showing itself to be the “Discriminating as Usual Party”. The DUP wants to deny gay and lesbian people equal rights. That is just wrong, especially when we consider the profound effect of intolerance on young people.
There has been much misrepresentation on the part of the DUP in its attempt to justify its stance. The DUP claims that the regulations attack freedom of religious belief. That is just not true. Nothing in the regulations means that religious doctrine cannot be taught in schools, nor will the regulations cover properties such as church halls or retreat houses, the main purpose of which is not commercial. The proof is that the South has had similar laws for the last six years, which have not created any bother or surprises. Provided that clear and sensible guidance is issued, the SDLP does not see why there should be problems in the North. However, should any such problems arise, it would be a simple matter to review the regulations.
For those reasons, the SDLP opposes the DUP’s motion. Equality is a basic human right and the regulations vindicate that principle. The regulations have been laid before Parliament and should become law. I therefore oppose the motion.
The Alliance Party supports the regulations, and it commented in favour of them during the consultation process. It is absolutely essential that there should be equality of opportunity, equality of access, equality of treatment and equality under the law for every citizen in this society, regardless of any groups to which they may or may not belong, or of their sexual orientation.
Mr Donaldson’s principal complaint this morning was that the regulations have been held back in Great Britain, but are proceeding in Northern Ireland. He also complained about the length of the consultation process. I note that even he admits that there were 673 responses during the consultation period. The consultation process was undoubtedly shorter than the ideal, but it covered all of the main religious groupings within Northern Ireland and all of the key groups that have an interest in the area of sexual orientation discrimination. I am not sure that the response would have been any different had there been another four weeks — or 14 weeks — of consultation. To simply suggest that the timescale was the major problem does not seem to be going very far.
If the regulations are ready to go forward in Northern Ireland, the Alliance Party believes that they should go forward — bureaucratic engagement in Great Britain is no excuse for doing otherwise here.
I thought that the Member’s intervention would be more relevant than that, Madam Speaker. Discrimination, homophobic bullying and violence exist today, and they must be dealt with today. If the Member cannot see that that is rather more significant than the timescale for the water charging consultations, I am afraid that he is in the wrong debate.
If the implementation of the regulations were left to a Northern Ireland Assembly, the attitude of the DUP suggests that it would do all that it could to block these, or similar, regulations. In the wider community, those who oppose the regulations are the same people who opposed the decriminalisation of homosexual acts a few years ago; they are merely fighting another battle further down the line. That is why, whatever their motivation, or whatever they claim their feelings to be, they are seen as being merely homophobic. This Assembly should not support a stance that can be interpreted in such a way.
Existing laws cover elements of discrimination against people on grounds of sexual orientation, but currently they fall far short of the provisions that apply for other categories of discrimination where offering goods and services is concerned. There are many cases in which it is legal to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality but not, for example, on the grounds of race and religion. The legislation that is being discussed this morning is a way to deal with that. I find it sad that exaggerated fears are being whipped up to suggest that the regulations go far wider than any rational reading of them would reveal.
Although many people, particularly those who are members of religious groupings and denominations, are concerned about their position and the rights that are necessary for them to maintain their formal stance, they have all said that they oppose discrimination. It is perverse to whip up those fears and to suggest that discrimination is being applied in a reverse way.
No. I have given way already for a fairly inconsequential intervention.
Madam Speaker, clear examples have been given that have been disproved by the fact that exemptions for churches and religious practice in Northern Ireland are actually wider — not narrower, as has been suggested — than those that are being proposed for Great Britain. Indeed, it will still be possible to discriminate in some areas against gays in a way that will not be possible in other areas.
Mr Donaldson’s dismissal of concerns about harassment worried me. If he opposes the introduction of legislation against harassment, he could be interpreted as supporting harassment. That is a serious point, so I shall give him a few seconds to answer it.
On that point, Madam Speaker, may I quote from the Secretary of State’s letter to my right hon Friend Dr Paisley? On the issue of harassment, specifically in relation to Christian bookshops, which was an issue that we raised, the Secretary of State said:
“Whether or not an environment is ‘hostile, degrading, humiliating, insulting or offensive’ is a matter for the court. In this untested area it is impossible to predict whether a hypothetical book or poster could be considered ‘hostile’ etc. by a ‘reasonable man’ in all the circumstances, which is the basic test.”
In other words, this has not yet been tested. The hon Member may find that, when it comes to the courts, I am right and he is wrong.
Madam Speaker, it may have to come to the courts to test that.
However, the suggestion that displaying Christian books in a Christian bookshop amounts to harassment is far beyond any example from any other area. When Mr Donaldson uses phrases such as “homosexuality is a sin”, he is actually suggesting that discrimination against the sinners is justifiable. That is the danger in the civil society in which we live.
I am sorry, Madam Speaker; I thought that that was a direct quote.
The sorts of examples that were given earlier that suggested that a minister explaining his church’s position in a charitable and counselling way could be interpreted as harassment, again stretches instances of harassment way beyond anything that is credible under normal understanding of the common law. Harassment requires abuse and malice. An honest explanation of a theological position, given in love, cannot conceivably be regarded as such. To whip up fears that suggest that that would be the case seems to be taking an entirely unreasonable attitude to the regulations. Similarly, a number of Members have referred to adoption regulations.
Can I ask a quick question? Madam Speaker, with respect to sexual harassment, the perception of the offended, not the person who commits the harassment, will cause problems. Therefore it is not what the bookshop might or might not do; rather, it is whether a person perceives harassment to have occurred. The Member has not addressed that fundamental point.
No. Weight may be given to perception, but interpretation is not solely based on perception; there must be an interpretation that goes beyond a simple perception. That perception must also be honest and reasonable. Those matters may need to be decided in the courts, but to suggest that there should be a blanket allowance for anything to be done — lest a matter be tested in the courts and turn out not to be to the liking of unionist Members — is surely not where we want the law to be.
Reference has been made to adoption regulations as though, somehow, there are large numbers of children about to be shipped off to be adopted by gay partners. The reality, as anyone with my background in social work knows, is that very small numbers of children are adopted, and the principle in adoption is that the needs of the child come first. To suggest that adoption is being treated in the way that has been suggested in this Chamber this morning is an utterly unreasonable perception of what is happening.
Mr Donaldson said that this Assembly should have the right to decide. Of course, this Assembly has no rights to decide anything — this is the Transitional Assembly. However, it seems that, if there is to be devolution and if this Assembly will have to take decisions in areas such as this, the comments made so far by Mr Donaldson, and the sedentary comments of some of his friends, suggest that there are real reasons for concern. Given their opposition to the regulations, I really wonder what guarantee society as a whole would have that members of the DUP, given power, would live up to their obligations on equality and a shared future in respect of all of our citizens.
I support the motion standing in the name of my colleague Jeffrey Donaldson. On Friday 24 November — a epic day in more than one sense, as we all remember — not only was much happening in the halls of Parliament Buildings, but the halls of Westminster were not silent either. While the eyes of our elected representatives were focusing on securing a future for our Province, The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 were being forced through.
I am sure that all Members are fully aware of the implications for the people of Northern Ireland of that piece of legislation being pushed through behind closed doors. It is the clearest sign that those behind that underhanded manoeuvre were aware that the legislation was something that our constituents on, I believe, both sides of the divide, would not wish to be made law in this Province.
The matter should have been left until April 2007, when legislation is to be introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom, after the careful consideration period of nine months. At that time, the Members of this Assembly who are willing to follow through on their obligations will be sitting and deciding on the issues that directly impact upon Northern Ireland. Would it not have been better to do that then?
Northern Ireland has been cited as a test-bed region for laws that the Government feel are controversial for the mainland — the rates evaluation procedures are a perfect example. The push to implement this legislation here, with, subsequently, a lesser chance of adverse publicity, was a clear boon for those who have the agenda of promoting this form of positive discrimination, which is not wanted, or even needed, in the huge majority of cases in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, the consultation process in Northern Ireland showed overwhelmingly that these regulations were not wanted as they stand, never mind with the addition of the amendments concerning the illegality of so-called harassment that appeared in the final document. The document that was released for consultation expressly stated that there would be no law on harassment. However, a mere six weeks later, that had been added to the regulations and approved, dramatically expanding the ambit of the law.
The regulations make it illegal to harass someone on the basis of their sexual orientation. That seems to be fair enough on the surface, but one does not have to scratch too deeply to find that the reality is not so shiny as the surface implies. There is no clear-cut definition of what exactly constitutes harassment. Harassment is entirely based on the perception of the person who feels that they are the recipient of that harassment, which is defined as a violation of dignity, a hostile or insulting environment, and degrading or humiliating treatment. Surely, that is all in the eye of the beholder and, were that beholder to possess a prejudice against a member of the community with values opposed to their own, surely a hostile environment or an insult to dignity could be found in many situations. Is that equality?
One of Ruth Kelly’s aides has said:
“Peter [Hain] is doing what is right for Northern Ireland, where there is a different history and system. We will do what is right for Great Britain.”
There is one thing that is undoubtedly true about that statement: we do have a different history and system in Northern Ireland. There is a decidedly stronger Christian influence in the Province; it is the Bible Belt of the UK. To try to enforce this legislation on us without consultation or the consent of elected representatives — without even an opportunity to debate or amend it, as is proper and right in a democracy — is a disgusting act of dictatorship. No thought or consideration has been given to the owners of businesses, who have always proclaimed their right to refuse admission.
We are assured that churches will be protected and allowed to retain the freedom to preach their own morals. However, let me outline the consequences of this law should it be passed as it stands now. A man may hear in church the Bible clearly outlined, telling him to stand for what is right. At work the next morning, he may be asked by a group to illustrate the cover of a book of dubious nature, which goes against the beliefs he holds dear and the make-up of the person that he is. He will no longer be allowed to refuse politely, for fear that it may lead to a claim under the new legislation. Should he go against the person that he is, or follow the rigours of a law that clearly discriminates against his belief system? This new law protects it on Sunday but discriminates against it on other days of the week. Should he have to face a choice between his job and his integrity? There is plenty of freedom in the market, so why should those who will lose revenue from their businesses be further persecuted by the spectre of a fine?
Christianity is not merely a one-day wonder; it is a way of life. This legislation goes against freedom of religion and the right to form one’s own beliefs that is secured in the Human Rights Act 1998, which Labour and Peter Hain have been so anxious to promote. Surely there is a right to protect the biblical foundations that established this nation. Queen Victoria, when asked the secret behind the greatness of England, lifted her Bible and replied that God was great and that she believed that he was the foundation of England. Were she to be asked that question today, she would need to be sure that it was a Sunday and that she was in church, on the off chance that someone might find that she was supporting biblical principles.
There is a factor missing from the calculation of this legislation: Christians do not want to discriminate against homosexuals. I would not refuse to sell to someone because of his or her sexuality, race, creed or colour, and I would not withhold constituency support from anyone for those reasons. However, that does not mean that I should actively encourage and promote homosexuality in my home or in my children’s school education, or by hiring out my church hall for a rally or by putting advertising in my window. To be forced to promote that impacts adversely on my freedom, and it is unacceptable. It is also unacceptable to the people who support the DUP.
There are 7·3 million evangelistic Christians in England. That does not take into account the five million Roman Catholics, as well as Jews, Muslims and mainstream church-goers, who are opposed to this regulation in its very definition. That number far outweighs the number of those in favour, including the 6% of the population who make up the gay community.
There has been some talk of surveys this morning. In an independent survey in England, 70% of the 10,000 adults questioned stated that they believed that any law requiring people to promote homosexual practice should be applied selectively, in order to ensure that people with strong religious beliefs are not forced to act against their conscience. Furthermore, 66% stated that the law should not discriminate against religious groups in order to promote gay rights. Clearly, a large proportion of the population is opposed to this legislation.
The majority of people interviewed agreed that the Government should do more to promote traditional family and marriage values and less to promote gay and lesbian lifestyles. This was not a survey of church-goers but of people on the street. If that was the finding in England, how much greater would be the response in Northern Ireland? Yet this view was never taken into consideration. The only view that was considered was that of the loud minority who are goaded on by Labour, whose agenda seems to be to devalue the family and to break the church.
The vast majority of people in the Province have no desire to withhold a cup of coffee in a café from someone who is homosexual; they just do not want to be forced to actively promote homosexuality, whether in the workplace, in their own businesses or in the education of their children. As a parent, I want my boys to learn about and value the importance of individuals in society and to respect all people.
However, that individual respect is not to be confused with condoning something that is contrary to God’s law. My boys need to learn that; they do not need to be taught that anything and everything goes, when it does not.
I am no man’s judge; I can be responsible only for my own actions and for my own conscience. My conscience does not allow me to remain silent and permit the implementation of these unfair and discriminatory regulations to proceed unchallenged.
Is it not already clear from the debate that the Secretary of State is forcing the regulations through because parties in this Assembly have made representations to stop any future Assembly from making that decision? That is the reason that the Government are forcing them through now.
I thank the Member for his intervention, and I endorse his point.
Those who seek to implement the regulations in Northern Ireland have done so in a distinctly underhand way while at the same time proclaiming that they are being introduced in the hope of finding equality. Where is the real equality? A chief executive of the gay lobby group Stonewall has been appointed as a commissioner to the new Commission of Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). A gay printer can refuse to print Christian literature, but a Christian printer can no longer refuse the tender of a gay magazine. Where is the equality in that?
“read his own regulations, which elevate gay rights above all other rights for religious people … It is a preferential status which will drive a coach and horses through religious liberty.”
I support the motion, which calls for the withdrawal of the regulations, thus leaving the issue to be determined by a Northern Ireland Assembly. The voices of the hundreds of people who have already registered their condemnation of the rushed way in which the legislation has proceeded, and its subsequent repercussions, warrant proper consideration. We need to ensure that the Secretary of State listens and does not continue to ride roughshod over the firmly held beliefs of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Every business owner should retain the right to politely refuse business for whatever reason, and it is none of anybody else’s concern why they do so, as long as there is a free and open market that will provide goods and services.
I do not intend to discriminate against any faction of society; I wish only to ensure that there is no positive discrimination, which is just as unsavoury, unnecessary and every bit as unacceptable.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I oppose the motion. I take up Dermot Nesbitt’s point about the position that the UN adopted in 1948. I remind him that, as of 1 December 2006, which was less than two weeks ago, a statement on behalf of 54 countries called for the UN to integrate modern thinking on discrimination. That thinking prevents discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. I remind the Member that Ireland and Britain were signatories to that statement.
The motion argues that the introduction of the legislation be deferred on the grounds that the process behind it has been flawed. Those who support the motion have argued that the regulations are being introduced in advance of the introduction of their equivalent in Britain. They also argue that they support rights for all in our society, including those of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities. They talk about the rights of those whose religious beliefs the regulations would offend.
Several Members who have already spoken have indicated their personal opposition to the substance of the regulations. I accept that, under party discipline, and in recent times, disciplinary action has been taken against some DUP members. However, it is fair to say that, for many of us, the history of the DUP — and perhaps, even more so, that of the Free Presbyterian Church — will lead many of us to believe that a strong homophobic strain runs through that strand of our society. Many of us believe that, and our belief is based on the experience of seeing many years of strong campaigns that were headed by the leader of the DUP, who is sitting on the Benches opposite. It is his public right and privilege to be able to do that.
We could defer the legislation on the basis of a flawed process, given that people say that they oppose the process behind the legislation. However, they actually oppose the substance of the regulations. Deferring the legislation to an Assembly would worry people such as ourselves because we know in our hearts — and this is the key thing for many of us — that many of those who want this matter to be deferred want it to be so in order that they can oppose the substance of the regulations in the future.
I can understand that people believe that the introduction of these regulations may invite harassment claims or lawsuits against people in certain professions. However, I do not believe that that will be the case. As has already been spelt out, the regulations provide a number of exemptions — people are entitled to preach and to promote their own arguments, religious or otherwise. People are not allowed, however, to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation against people who wish to access goods or services. That important point must be made.
It is also very wrong to say that, because the introduction of the regulations could hypothetically lead to a harassment claim being made against a person, no change should be made to the law. In fact, my party and I believe that the burden of ensuring that people who have no rights must outweigh the burden of protecting people who may be subject to future harassment cases. Ultimately, those in whose name the motion stands have put forward hypotheses as arguments.
We are dealing with people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, who are suffering from physical attacks, verbal harassment, actual discrimination and other forms of abuse day and daily. Many of those people in our community are living in fear of their lives every day —
Order. Just a moment, Mr Maskey. Did Members not hear what I said? Obviously not everyone did, because certain Members were still talking among themselves. Members, please desist from carrying on conversations when a Member is on his or her feet.
Thank you, Madam Speaker. On my party’s behalf, I oppose the motion. To defer the introduction of the regulations because the process is considered to have been flawed is a false perspective. In fact, many of those Members who are opposed to the introduction of this legislation are opposed to its substance. We would have no confidence in putting the rights and entitlements of people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community into the hands of people who are avowedly opposed to that community having those rights.
I want to underline what is the very important issue: the hypothesis that an individual, group, church or teacher, or whoever or whatever else, may face harassment charges in future is far outweighed by the need to protect under the law people right across our society, today, tomorrow and from here on in. At present, those people are being discriminated against and are the ones who have been suffering violent attacks. There is no hypothesis to be made there — those people are suffering directly daily. We want to support legislation that comes into operation sooner rather than later, in order to ensure that those people have the same rights and entitlements as everybody in this Chamber wants for themselves, their friends, their families, and those whom they represent.
Whatever one thinks of the outcome of this piece of legislation, it is pretty clear that there have been substantial defects in the process that resulted in the regulations. I submit that those defects should be sufficient for Members from a range of parties, regardless of their views on the substance of the sexual orientation regulations, to vote for the motion. The defects in the process have already been quite adequately rehearsed, but, in brief, they are threefold.
First, the consultation period was much shorter than normal Cabinet Office guidelines would recommend. Secondly, there were only around two months between the closing of that consultation and the drafting of the regulations. That strongly suggests that the Westminster Government had begun to write this piece of legislation before they had done the Northern Ireland public the courtesy of reading and analysing their thoughts on the questions in the consultation. Thirdly, I make the obvious point that similar regulations have been delayed until at least April 2007 in England and Wales, whereas they are to come into operation on 1 January here.
In short, therefore, the Government are rushing ahead with legislation in Northern Ireland but holding back in England and Wales. That prompts the question: why? Why are we being treated differently? Is Northern Ireland becoming a test bed? Have the Government cynically determined that, if they can pass this type of legislation in Northern Ireland, they will subsequently try the same trick in England and Wales?
There is also the question of why — and the report in ‘The Independent’ last week has been mentioned — the Secretary of State, Mr Hain, has come into conflict with the Cabinet’s equality Minister, Ruth Kelly, and has simply decided to overrule her. We can only speculate whether that all plays into the contest for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.
Our unhappiness at the manner in which this piece of legislation has been processed increases as one considers the complexity of the matters that the regulations concern. In general, and my colleagues accept this, the question is one of rights. I submit that the issue in the regulations is that the rights of one group — those who practise or advocate a homosexual lifestyle — are being privileged over another group — those who object to such a lifestyle choice on moral grounds.
That brings in the question of the religious exemption — it is there, but it is certainly narrow. In practice, religious exemption is being qualified in two crucial ways. It will not apply to any church or religious body that is in a contractual relationship with the state, hence the example of adoption agencies, which were mentioned earlier. There is also the qualification that any such body could fall foul of the harassment provision.
My fellow Members and I are not advocating harassment, but the regulations have been drafted very broadly as far as a so-called offensive environment is concerned — and here I quarrel with the hon Member for Lagan Valley Ms Lewsley. As my colleague Mr Nesbitt said, the definition is subjective. Regulation 52 states that the burden of proof rests with the accused, and that is a dangerous precedent.
Before I call the next Member to speak, I think that we have all been treated equally today — we are all cold. I have checked and I hope that the Chamber will be heated soon — in addition to the hot air. I call Mr Pat Ramsey. I hope that you will be all right, Mr Ramsey.
I hope so too.
This debate is hugely important. The SDLP understands the sensitivities around some of the principled points made by those from the Church sectors. However, the SDLP is committed to the promotion of human rights and equality, which is why we fought to make equality a key part of the Good Friday Agreement. We need to ensure that the agreement’s promise on equality and human rights is there for all. That is why the SDLP is opposing the motion.
Good debates were held last week on the review of public administration and how certain sections of the community — whether Protestant or Catholic — feel about marginalisation, alienation and ensuring that people are not discriminated against. We are aiming, as best we can, to ensure that everyone in our society is part of the shared future that is so important to the Government.
Some of the objections to the regulations, such as those made by Jim Shannon, mentioned the forcing of churches to open up parish halls to gay groups. That is misleading. Regulation 16 clearly exempts organisations based on religion or belief from a charge of discrimination provided they are solely religious, and not commercial, organisations. Therefore, the objection has already been covered.
Discrimination of any type should be outlawed. These regulations go some way towards ensuring that people are not discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation in respect of the allocation of goods, services, accommodation, education, and availability and access to public authorities.
Why should any person be treated less favourably because he or she has, or is perceived to have, a particular sexual orientation? That is unfair and unjust, and it should not be allowed to continue. Passing this legislation will ensure that — just as it is illegal to refuse to serve someone on the grounds of religion or gender — it will be illegal to refuse to serve someone on the grounds of sexual orientation. This is about equality for all.
To quote Dr Martin Luther King when he was in Birmingham jail in 1963:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The current situation that permits injustice on the grounds of sexual orientation is unacceptable and damaging not only to lesbian, gay and bisexual people, but to the whole of society. I have heard people criticise the legislation, stating that it will violate freedoms. That is not true. Contrary to what has been claimed, regulation 16, which is comprehensive and detailed, provides certain specific exemptions on the grounds of religious beliefs.
The legislation will enshrine into law the principle of equality for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. It will provide safeguards for everyone, including everyone in this Chamber, against that type of discrimination, and it will provide a legal remedy for anyone who has been treated less favourably on the grounds of sexual orientation. The regulations cannot make people respect homosexuals or cherish them as part of our society, but it can prohibit discrimination against them.
Equality either exists or it does not — there is no halfway house. A situation in which discrimination against a fellow human being continues to be lawful does not make it right. Nor does it make for a fair and equitable society.
Why should we hold up this important piece of legislation any further just because it is in advance of equivalent legislation in Great Britain? The matter needs no further delay. The current situation that permits injustice on the grounds of sexual orientation is unacceptable and damaging not only to homosexuals, but to society as a whole.
The legislation should be allowed to come into force to guarantee that everyone is subject to equal treatment, regardless of sexual orientation.
Is there not a fundamental issue at stake for parties such as the SDLP and others that advocate devolution? We are told that we should have devolution so that local parties and local politicians can make the decisions. However, in this one area, because they do not like the particular outcome that may arise, they demand that the Government go ahead and ram this legislation through the House of Commons. There is a fundamental dichotomy in all of this that is surely embarrassing for the hon Gentleman. Does he feel no embarrassment about that at all?
I do not, and I am sure that the hon Member will have every opportunity to make his own speech and address some of the matters that have been raised, such as the objections to the owners of bed-and-breakfast accommodation being able to refuse entry to gays. No one in a commercial operation should refuse entry to anyone. We used to see signs saying: “No Irish need apply” or “No British need apply”. We do not want a situation in which gays are totally discriminated against.
A point was made about a prohibition on teaching against homosexuality in schools. That is untrue. The regulations are to prevent discrimination and harassment — not the teachings of religious doctrines.
I spoke to the Rainbow Group, an organisation that promotes and advocates the rights of gays across Northern Ireland. Homophobia is a serious problem across Northern Ireland and in my constituency. The PSNI, along with most parties in the city, brought forward protocols aimed at addressing and reducing the level of homophobia. Those measures were successful, and all political parties contributed to that. A recent study among lesbians and gays revealed that harassment and violence are serious problems.
In total, 82% of respondents have experienced harassment, and 55% have been subject to homophobic violence. It is expected of us as civic leaders to try to ensure that we are providing a society in which everyone is equal; no one is marginalized; no one is alienated; and all people can participate in the shared future we all agreed upon.
Madam Speaker, I rise to oppose the motion. Equality is equality is equality. If we refuse any human being the entitlement to equality, we deny ourselves proper equality. It is either for everyone or for no one. The Democratic Unionist Party has made great play of the fact that the Secretary of State is determining that the Assembly should have this legislation stuffed down its throat. He may well be doing us a favour.
In fact, he may also have done us favours in the past, and I have not heard too many raucous comments from Members of that party about them. For instance, he just declared that there would be an election, having previously said that one would not take place until 2008. I did not hear any raucous complaint about that.
No, I will not.
We have the option to live in a modern, decent society, and if we choose to have equality, it must be for everyone. This is a nice country with a great opportunity, but it is a bit like the beautiful girl who goes to a beauty salon and comes out with warts on her nose.
There are jobs at hand. It is not just about Catholics and Protestants; our ethnic minorities are having nightmarish experiences, and we must have some sense of leadership that creates a condition in which the circumstances that happen on the ground are perceived to be absolutely intolerable. I certainly perceive that young people do silly things because it is on behalf of the DUP. That is the mindset that is out there. We must have leadership that guarantees the circumstances in which everyone is equal and equally protected under the law.
I was not fast enough to my feet earlier to respond to a couple of DUP Members. They said that it would be better if every human being were free from violence and harassment. However, no one told Daphne Trimble that. No one told Ken Maginness that when he was being kicked. In other words, the DUP can have a sweet and wholesome view on harassment, but in effect, when its members are in a massed gang in a car park in Portadown, they do not behave in quite the same way — [Interruption.]
There are a number of factors at play, which we might address instead of playing the DUP’s game. What is so harrowing is that the DUP operates a process of clairvoyance — and it is never good news. As the saying goes, every Prod knows the future but it is never good news. There is legislation coming and it cannot be bad enough. It will be terrible. The DUP is over-egging the pudding.
In reality, there are human beings who struggle to come through life with the realisation that they are different. It is a horrific condition for a young man or woman to realise that they are out of step with the rest of society. It brings immense pressure.
Let me give you some examples of things we could be talking about. Northern Ireland has the highest teenage suicide rate; one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates; the highest rate of heart defect; and the lowest levels of educational achievement in Europe.
Yet here we are, talking about ensuring that we guarantee that those ogres in the gay and lesbian community do not get equality.
That is effectively what you are doing.
Let us be realistic: in terms of how a person sleeps, eats, does a day’s work or functions as a human being, treating a gay or lesbian person as an equal will do them absolutely no harm and will not, in any way, diminish them as a human being.
I worry about the concept of homophobia. I know that we are pressed for time, Madam Speaker, and I appreciate being called to speak. I will not take up that much of your time. However, it is worth highlighting research that was done in the United States. Overtly homophobic people were wired up to electrodes and shown heterosexual images and then homosexual images. This is a true story, Madam Speaker. Lo and behold, you will never guess what inspired them most. I do not mean that personally against any human being here.
People who are confirmed in their own sexual orientation are proba bly less frightened than those who are not. It seems that some people display an over-the-top reaction to those who are different. Many young working-class men will express it through a sense of superiority, whether it is over an ethnic community or those who they perceive as abnormal.
The sentiments and attitudes of people such as those in the DUP — and the DUP is surely not alone — is that it is OK to treat those people as inferior. They are not inferior; they are equal, and they should be equal in all aspects of life as far as it is earthly possible for us to deliver. Northern Ireland has the opportunity to deliver that equality. The Secretary of State is doing us a favour by passing these regulations because, if such a circumstance were to come before this Assembly, we would end up with a horrible gridlock. The Secretary of State has done things before. I do not mean to be too unreasonable, but some people say that staying out of a devolved Assembly for long enough would allow the Secretary of State to get the all the nightmare stuff in place so that we do not have to do it.
For those Members who are absolutely serious about the upset that these regulations will cause in the odd bookshop — never mind that porn can be bought from any newsagent’s top shelf — the reality is that, had they taken the responsibility that was offered to them, they could have made all kinds of changes. They could have had the opportunity in the Assembly to pass these regulations.
When this motion is defeated, or goes nowhere, perhaps those Members’ constituents, for whom they fight great battles, will realise that, had those Members taken the opportunity in the first place, they could well have had a voice in what society would be like. The jury is out on how they would reform equality, certainly for those people who have suffered indignity, hurt and horror for many years.
I sometimes wonder whether Members take the time to read the motion on the Order Paper before entering the Chamber. The Member who has just spoken did not do so; otherwise he would not be talking about equality for homosexual people. Nobody is saying anything about that in respect of this motion.
The motion concerns two things: the role of law in addressing issues in society and the manner in which the regulations are being introduced. Do not let the truth get in the way of a good story, David Ervine.
Fundamentally, I am not opposed to equality, but these regulations are. When did anyone expect Sinn Féin to call for a matter to be decided at the Westminster Parliament — out of the control of the Irish people, as that party would see it? The headlines from this issue can be summarised thus: “Hain does not trust local politicians to take decisions”, and: “Republicans support British rule”. That is a slightly bizarre situation, I think you will agree, Madam Speaker.
Colleagues have spoken about democratic deficits, and my friend George Dawson will touch on that when he winds up the debate. I want to consider the proper role of the law in dealing with such matters as social change. Parliament should be very careful when legislating in such an area. Rather than producing the kind of liberal, tolerant society that we all want, the regulations are in danger of stoking up grievances and making life more difficult for those whom they seek to help.
I am concerned that lawyers will be the only people who will benefit from these regulations — and I say that, given that I have a vested interest. The problem of using the law to change society is that it is necessarily a blunt instrument that will create many unintended and undesirable consequences. Given the timescale, there is not even an adequate opportunity to consider such matters in detail.
There is a saying in the law that ignorance of the law is no defence. I hope that my friends will read the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997; if they do, they will have no defence for what they have said today. The 1997 Order says that:
“a person shall not pursue a course of conduct –
(a) which amounts to harassment of another; and
(b) which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.”
Harassment legislation already exists, ladies and gentlemen. Article 3 of the new regulations defines a new offence of harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation, which, as Mr Nesbitt pointed out, is tested subjectively, not objectively. That provides an extra protection for the gay and lesbian community above that which is given to the rest of us. People do not realise that legislation for protection from harassment already exists. It protects us all; if we want equality, that is the way that it should be.
Much has been said about homophobic attacks, especially by Sinn Féin’s human rights spokesman — if there is such a thing. If she supported the PSNI and the Policing Board, she would do much more to deal with all hate crimes, be they homophobic, sectarian or racist. Of course, her party chooses not to join the PSNI or to support the rule of law. Sinn Féin should not lecture us about the rule of law when it cannot itself support the rule of law. I wonder whether Sinn Féin will expel any of its members who are found guilty of criminal offences, as my party has done in the past in relation to homophobic attacks.
Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are important and fundamental freedoms, and I am sure that all Members want to see them protected. The right to express my faith and beliefs openly and honestly in a temperate fashion is one that I value immensely and want to see defended for all people. However, those are not the only freedoms and protections that are important in society. Those of us who enjoy those particular rights, protections and safeguards should be those who most wish to see them extended to all people.
We should surely want to see the freedom to live free of harassment and intimidation and to receive equal treatment under the law in matters of the extension of goods and services to all people. Equality and human rights are not fixed quantities. Extending them to others does not diminish one’s own; in fact, creating a more equal, open, honest and fair society actually strengthens all our positions and rights.
The motion raises a number of issues, most notably, the differential between our situation and that in England and Wales, the reasons for any deferral and the effectiveness of the consultation. It is my understanding, having researched the issue and spoken to those who were involved in the decision to defer the legislation in England and Wales, that it was simply impossible for the 3,000-odd consultation responses that they received to be processed in advance of the November deadline. I also understand that there is a long-standing agreement between Government and business that legislation that affects businesses will be advanced only at two times of the year — November and April. On those grounds, these regulations could not have been brought forward in advance of the April deadline. No one to whom I have spoken has the sense that the Government have gone cold on the legislation in England and Wales.
Furthermore, in relation to the effectiveness of the consultation, I accept Jeffrey Donaldson’s point that the consultation period was short and perhaps not as well timed as it ought to have been.
However, it is clear from the number of detailed responses received that all the substantive issues have been raised with the Department. Furthermore, the fact that exemptions granted to religious bodies have been strengthened during the process means that the consultation has affected the legislation. Therefore consultation has been effective in taking account of representations made during the process; many consultations in Northern Ireland do not result in changes to legislation. That must be recognised.
The legislation contains grey areas, which will be tested in court, as happens with all legislation. On the basis of common sense, a judge will decide whether those grey areas can be sorted out properly. It is not possible to legislate for each individual situation; that is a fact with all legislation.
The Member for Strangford Mr Jim Shannon — and I hope that I am not misrepresenting him — argued that a businessman should retain the right to refuse business politely from a gay person. If the hon Member for Strangford had suggested that it would be acceptable for a businessman to refuse business, politely or otherwise, from someone with a disability, a Muslim, a Jew, a Chinese person, a black person, a woman or a Christian, it would have been a complete affront to the House. We must be very careful about saying that people should have the right to refuse business simply on the basis of people’s beliefs, lifestyles, or who they are. That is not acceptable, and it does little to convince people that the motion is not driven by prejudice.
Some Members have suggested that the legislation would impose a duty to promote homosexuality: nowhere in the legislation is there a demand to promote a homosexual lifestyle. That claim has been made in the House this morning; Members can read it in Hansard. The legislation contains no duty to promote or defend a homosexual lifestyle: the duty is to treat people with respect.
No, I will not give way at this point.
I have discussed these issues with people who have lobbied strongly to find protections for those with Christian principles. It is my understanding that there is not an issue with regard to bed-and-breakfast accommodation, homes for the elderly, and so forth. The legislation does not preclude Christian owners of guest houses or old people’s homes from applying their Christian principles against all people who are in sexual relationships outside marriage and saying that they will accept only people who are single or married. The legislation simply states that a person cannot accept an unmarried heterosexual couple but refuse an unmarried homosexual couple. That is quite right. If this concern stems from genuine Christian principle rather than prejudice, the law provides protection for people to take those decisions.
It has been suggested that simply stating one’s belief that homosexuality is a sin could lead to a charge of harassment, but there is no evidence that that is the case. Repeated and intemperate remarks targeted maliciously at an individual would constitute harassment. I question whether any Christian would wish to target his or her views repeatedly at an individual in an intemperate manner, because I would question whether that person is a good witness.
On a personal note, it grieves me, as a Christian, that those of us who profess a personal Christian faith are so often seen to be in the heel-dragging section of the population when it comes to issues of human rights and equality. We ought to be at the forefront of the movement to extend to everyone the same rights that we enjoy. We should extend protections and safeguards under the law to all people, thereby reflecting the inherent dignity, worth and value of every human being, as it is my belief that we are all created in the image of God.
I have no hesitation in saying that I approach these and other regulations and laws from the standpoint of Christian morality. That is my world view. It is my right to have, defend and express that world view. It is my right to allow that world view to influence my decisions, my life and my actions. I share that view with many hundreds of thousands of people across Northern Ireland.
The DUP’s approach to the regulations is not simply based on the fact that it does not like them — although it does not. The regulations are a direct attack on the right to hold, express and manifest a religious belief. They are an attack on freedom: on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Has such an attack not already taken place in the Chamber this morning? Mr Maskey attacked both the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church. Perhaps Members are aware of Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement that homosexuality is:
“a more or less strong tendency ordered to an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”.
The interventions from Sinn Féin Members today have convinced the DUP, yet again, that they have no commitment to the principles of democracy.
I too am aware of the current Pope’s comments on homosexuality, as quoted by Mr Poots. I am sure that the Members from both the SDLP and Sinn Féin will brand the current Pope as homophobic for making those remarks.
The regulations fly in the face of opposition from both Protestants and Roman Catholics and are being implemented for the benefit of a tiny, vociferous minority. They are a charter for the persecution of anyone with a moral conscience. Anyone who reads the national newspapers will have seen page after page of comment and criticism from the churches. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, has accused the Government of an:
“aggressive reshaping of our moral framework”.
The Catholic Church in England and Wales has warned of a rebellion in schools and charities. Those people are not foot-draggers — they have a clear moral conscience. The Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, warned the Government that the regulations:
“will certainly affect a great deal of charitable work done by the churches and others. It is the poor and disadvantaged who will be the losers.”
It is hard to see how the equality agenda will be advanced when the poor and the disadvantaged are the ones that suffer. In recent meetings with my party leader, both the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh have raised these issues. That demonstrates the concern about the regulations felt by the religious community in Northern Ireland. The Presbyterian Church has described the regulations as a:
“worrying intrusion of legislation into the affairs of faith.”
I have spoken to the clerk of the general assembly about the matter and am aware of his concerns about the regulations.
This is bad law. It will result in the harassment of Christian people.
However, to summarise the main points; first, there has been inadequate consultation on the regulations. The facts are as follows; eight weeks consultation time was given, with four weeks of that time being in the holiday season, in contrast to the Government’s own recommendation of 12 weeks. Six weeks of consideration was given to the local responses, while in the rest of the United Kingdom the responses are still being considered. Are we to believe that the issues raised here are of less importance than those raised in the United Kingdom, or are we to believe that the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office are of a higher intelligence, so that they can deal with the issues in a better way than the rest of their GB colleagues?
The Government published the consultation responses after the proposals were laid in Parliament. Perhaps it was because consideration of the proposals had not been completed until the additional three weeks had elapsed. Going further than that, however, the consultation misled the public. In paragraph 4.15 of the consultation document, it specifically states that:
“On the basis of the complex arguments put forward we are minded to accept that it is not appropriate to legislate for harassment within these regulations.”
Yet there is a harassment provision in the regulations. The Government, while stating that they were not going to include such a provision provision, have gone back on what they said, and there has not been adequate consultation on the harassment provisions.
Is the Member aware that the juris-prudence on the term “harassment”, under the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, is given the widest possible meaning when it comes before the courts, because that is what happens?
Not only has there been inadequate consultation on the matter; the regulations create inequality rather than equality. The European Convention on Human Rights states that the right to hold religious belief is absolute. Consequently, the Government cannot penalise those who for religious reasons hold that homosexuality is wrong or sinful. The Government, and Members opposite, may not like that view, but we have the right to hold it and not to be persecuted for holding it.
As my hon Friend, Mr Donaldson, has said, the six major world religions are opposed to homosexual practice. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all teach that homosexual practice is sinful. Bible teaching affirms that the only legitimate context for sexual relations is within a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Further-more, the exemptions in the regulations do not provide adequate protection for religious people, and that is particularly true of the harassment section that my hon Friend has already referred to.
Regulations 9 to 11, for example, lay down blanket anti-discrimination and harassment laws for education. There are no exemptions in relation to education. It will, therefore, be argued by some people that the regulations should apply in the content of the curriculum. A gay rights activist, for example, could say that a school that uses novels in relation to heterosexual love must also use novels with a theme of homosexual love. A similar argument could be used to justify equal treatment of homosexual and heterosexual sex in sex education lessons.
That is not, as some have said, scaremongering. The gay and lesbian lobby have already targeted schools in Canada. Schools in Canada have had books forced onto the curriculum against the views of teachers and parents in that jurisdiction. In 2002, the Chamberlain case in the Canadian Supreme Court struck down the decision of a British Columbian school board to refuse approval for three kindergarten schools to promote homosexual views in the classroom. That is not scaremongering; that is what is happening, and what happens across the Atlantic today will happen in Northern Ireland tomorrow.
These regulations violate the consciences of Christian children and their parents, and those of people in other religions as well. The regulations go further than any protection that there is for religion in Northern Ireland. The Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 provided broad exemptions for schools, but these regulations do not.
One can therefore sue in order to put homosexuality onto the curriculum in Northern Ireland, but one cannot sue to remove it from the curriculum or to protect children against the teaching of homosexuality. That is what these regulations will do. The ‘Getting Equal’ consultation stated that that would not be the case. On page 2, it states that the regulations’ express aim is:
“to bring protection from sexual orientation discrimination into line with existing legislation that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of … religious belief”.
However, the regulations on sexual orientation go much further than those that protect religious belief in Northern Ireland.
Madam Speaker, I am coming to the end of my speech. In the history of this island there were laws that were known as the penal laws.
The penal laws excluded non-Anglicans from positions of authority in business and politics. The sexual orientation regulations have the potential to exclude from business life and other aspects of society those who hold Christian moral views. That new secular ascendancy will penalise and exclude all those —
Thank you, Mr Dawson.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 39; Noes 39.
Billy Armstrong, Norah Beare, Roy Beggs, Billy Bell, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Thomas Buchanan, Gregory Campbell, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, Leslie Cree, George Dawson, Diane Dodds, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Reg Empey, George Ennis, Arlene Foster, Samuel Gardiner, Paul Girvan, William Hay, David Hilditch, Danny Kennedy, Nelson McCausland, William McCrea, David McNarry, Stephen Moutray, Dermot Nesbitt, Robin Newton, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, George Robinson, Peter Robinson, Jim Shannon, David Simpson, Mervyn Storey, Peter Weir, Jim Wilson.
Tellers for the Ayes: Jeffrey Donaldson and
Gerry Adams, Alex Attwood, Dominic Bradley, Mary Bradley, Francis Brolly, Willie Clarke, John Dallat, Pat Doherty, David Ervine, Sean Farren, David Ford, Tommy Gallagher, Carmel Hanna, Davy Hyland, Dolores Kelly, Gerry Kelly, Patricia Lewsley, Naomi Long, Alban Maginness, Alex Maskey, Fra McCann, Kieran McCarthy, Raymond McCartney, Alasdair McDonnell, Barry McElduff, Philip McGuigan, Mitchel McLaughlin, Eugene McMenamin, Francie Molloy, Conor Murphy, John O’Dowd, Pat O’Rawe, Tom O’Reilly, Pat Ramsey, Sue Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Caitriona Ruane, Kathy Stanton.
Vote on vacancy in Membership [Michael Ferguson (deceased)]: Gerry Adams.
Tellers for the Noes: Eugene McMenamin and Sue Ramsey
Question accordingly negatived.