New clause 3 - Religious belief

Employment Relations Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 26th February 2004.

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'After paragraph 171 of Schedule A1 to the 1992 Act insert—

''Religious belief

171A This Schedule shall not apply to any employer who, in the opinion of the CAC, objects on grounds of religious belief to taking part in collective bargaining.''.'.—[Mr. Bellingham.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is important, especially to a group of people known as the Brethren who, as result of their religious beliefs, are concerned about parts of the Bill. Many hon. Members may well know of them as the Plymouth Brethren, but they are known more widely as the Brethren. They have been active in the UK for over 150 years, during which time they have been able to take advantage of the religious freedoms that are a traditional and important part of our culture. They operate roughly 1,200 businesses, mainly small and medium-sized enterprises, employing 6,500 employees. The majority of those employees are themselves Brethren.

New clause 3 deals with matters of Christian conscience that are important to the Brethren. They aim to live their lives in strict accordance with the Holy Scripture and view the relationship between master and servant as holy. They regard trade associations and trade unions as inconsistent with that relationship in which they are involved. Their Christian scruples prevent them from recognising trade unions and from allowing trade union representation in their businesses.

It is important to stress that their practice as employers is almost invariably very good and beyond

any stricture. They are not bad employers and do not wish to exploit their employees. However, they wish to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs, which are a matter of tradition and culture and have generally been tolerated in this country for many years. Employment legislation in the past has often protected the right to Christian conscience. My new clause would protect that right for the Brethren, who are resident in different parts of the United Kingdom.

I am sure that the Committee knows this already, but the Brethren do not participate in the normal political process. I am not speaking on their behalf in anticipation that they may suddenly change their views, come into my constituency and campaign for me at the next election. There is no expectation of that. I am totally realistic and know that there is no party political significance here, but I want to defend the Brethren's right to freedom and tolerance. They should be allowed to practise their religion in their way in our country, as they have done for many years. I submit that they are decent people who live God-fearing lives based on the primacy of adherence to the Holy Scripture. That commitment renders it impossible for them to engage in any activity that would undermine the sanctity of the Lord's Supper. They are required to maintain an absolute separation from any activity that would cause them to violate that.

The Brethren are concerned about parts of the Bill, as the Minister will be aware because they have been to see him and had discussions with him. I am grateful to him for receiving them and for being extremely sympathetic and understanding to them. In those discussions he put it on the record that, in his opinion and that of his officials, they are thoroughly decent people and excellent employers who, in their own way, help wealth creation in this country and enjoy excellent relations with employees, many of whom, as I said, are themselves members of the Brethren.

There cannot be a large number of Brethren-owned or run businesses that would be affected by the Bill, as many of them are small. However, there are some that go beyond the threshold for recognition. We all hope that the small businesses of today will be the bigger businesses of tomorrow. Businesses that employ 20 or 30 people today may employ 40, 50 or 60 people tomorrow, and that is why the Brethren are concerned. They discussed with the Minister parts of the Bill that they are concerned about. I will not go into details, but the Minister is well aware of them, and the new clause would exempts the Brethren from the impact of those provisions.

I submit that Parliament has little meaning unless it recognises minorities and the fact that they matter. Majorities are important, and democracy is about respecting the wishes of the majority, but we should seek to respect the wishes of the majority in such a way that we never show contempt or do damage to the wishes of the minority. We are not talking about a large number of people.

If the Brethren were exempted from parts of the Bill, or afforded amendments, they would not wish in any way to undermine the law for the rest of the country. The House attaches great importance to the

principle of human rights. I do not need to remind the House that in the last Parliament, of which I was not a Member, there was a substantial debate in the House about human rights. If the Minister feels that what we are trying to do in the new clause, on behalf of the Brethren, is in any way consistent with his thinking, he might reflect on it and at least go some way to satisfy this genuine concern. If he judges that he can accept it, perhaps he can tell the Committee what action he intends to take to reassure this fine body of people that they can go on living their lives in accordance with their religious principles.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry

I understand completely why the hon. Gentleman has tabled the new clause following his discussions with representatives of the Brethren. I have some Brethren in my constituency; indeed, they are quite strong in the fishing communities of north-east Scotland. I respect them and their traditions and values. However, I have encountered this problem with them before and I think that it raises real concerns. If somebody says, ''I have a religious belief that is incompatible with the law of the country that I live in'', that is a problem in a democracy.

I shall give the hon. Gentleman an example of something that he may have experienced too. Members of the Brethren have come to me to ask to be exempted from jury service because it is against their religion. As the Committee will know, consideration is being given to extending the requirements for jury service and removing exemptions from such people as Members of Parliament, which may or may not be of interest, benefit or relevance to us. We must be extremely careful about changing the law in a way that allows a group, however respectable and reputable, the opportunity to opt out.

I intend no criticism of the hon. Gentleman—it is always difficult to draft new clauses in opposition—when I say that the new clause could be open to abuse, because people could say, ''I have just acquired a religious conviction that says that I don't believe in collective bargaining or negotiation''. There is then a difficulty in writing the law, unless it identifies almost named individuals who have secured that exemption.

I do not know whether the Minister feels that any accommodation can be made, but, although I respect the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk for tabling the new clause, I have grave reservations about embracing it, because it opens the floodgates for potential abuse and special cases in what is clearly a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multiracial society. Indeed, today the first citizens ceremonies were held, in which new citizens to the UK were asked to uphold rights and values, both broad and specific. One of those requirements was to recognise the rule of law. People are entitled to ask us to make laws in ways that accommodate them, but if there is a fundamental conflict between what we are trying to do and what they want to do, it is simply not possible to bridge that gap. That is my concern in this context, but that is not in any way to say that I do not respect the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue or the Brethren who I know operate in my part of Scotland.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs)

I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk has explained the new clause and for the contribution from the hon. Member for Gordon. As the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, the Brethren feel that taking part in collective bargaining with a trade union is contrary to their religious beliefs.

I have met representatives of the Brethren and have heard their concerns at first hand. They presented their case reasonably and sincerely. It is always good to get these things on the record, as it may help in other circumstances. I have no doubt about their motives in bringing this issue to our attention. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Brethren are good employers, and I am sure that they attach the highest importance to the well-being of their work force. However, as the hon. Member for Gordon says, this is a difficult issue. On the one hand, we want to respect freedom of religious belief. Equally, we must respect the rights of workers to associate with one another in trade unions and seek to be represented via their trade union.

Parliament looked at this issue in detail during the passage of the 1999 Act. The Government took the view that, on balance, an exemption from the statutory procedure on grounds of religious belief could not be accepted. No new evidence has been presented during the review of that Act to lead us to change that view.

The recognition procedure has not created any practical problems for the Brethren so far. The statutory procedure has been in operation for over three years, and I understand that there have been no applications for statutory recognition at Brethren-run businesses. That is not at all surprising. The majority of Brethren-owned businesses employ fewer than 21 workers, and are therefore already exempt from the statutory procedure.

During the passage of the 1999 Act, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), then the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, said that of the 1,200 businesses operated by the Brethren,

''only 35 businesses have more than 20 employees''.—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 16 March 1999; c. 395–6.]

There is no reason to think that there have been any significant changes to those figures since then. In addition, we know that demand for recognition at small businesses above the threshold is generally low.

A large proportion of workers in Brethren-owned businesses are themselves Brethren. During the passing of the 1999 Act, the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) stated that there were around 6,500 employees of Brethren-owned businesses, of whom all but 2,000 were fellow Brethren. That suggests that it is quite unlikely that a majority of workers in Brethren-owned businesses would favour or seek the recognition of a union.

We have misgivings about the way that the exemption in the new clause would work in practice. The new clause understandably assigns a role to the independent Central Arbitration Committee to decide whether an employer's objection to collective bargaining is on grounds of religious belief. CAC

members are recruited on the grounds of their industrial relations experience. They are not experts in matters of faith or religious doctrine. We do not think it would be appropriate for them to be put in the position of having to decide whether an employer's religious beliefs were sincerely held or prevented his acceptance of collective bargaining.

I fully recognise the religious convictions of the Brethren. However, we have to recognise that other employers—unscrupulous ones, as the hon. Member for Gordon said—might seek to exploit the exemption simply to avoid the statutory procedure. All the employer has to do is to assert that he has a religious belief that prevents him dealing with trade unions.

I sympathise with the spirit in which the new clause was tabled. I am sure that all hon. Members present wish to uphold freedom of religious belief for all faiths. However, difficult decisions have to be taken between conflicting human rights. We remain of the view that in this case the rights of workers must come first. The existence of the statutory procedure will not in practice pose a problem for the Brethren, and there are several complexities in the operation of the proposed exemption.

In view of that, and although we acknowledge in the spirit in which the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk moved the new clause, we do not believe that there is a strong case for it, so I ask him to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister 4:45 pm, 26th February 2004

I am grateful to the Minister for the way that he has replied to my points. I have listened attentively to him, and I would like him to comment on article 9 of the European convention on human rights, which is now part of our law. It offers protection to religious minorities with particular beliefs, so is there any way in which he feels that some of the demands and requirements of the Brethren could be considered? I am not suggesting that we agree to the new clause now, but he may be able to speak to his officials and meet the Brethren again so that the Government can go some way to accommodating those genuine concerns.

As the Minister rightly points out, few businesses are affected, but small businesses today may well be much bigger businesses tomorrow. We want them to grow and play a part in the wider community. I hope that the Minister will not end the dialogue with the Brethren today, but ensure that it continues.

In response to the hon. Member for Gordon, I can say that the CAC would make the decision, and if there were any attempt to open up a line of attack to obtain exemption from the provisions when enacted or from other employment legislation, the CAC would be able to spot it pretty quickly.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Trade and Industry) (Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs)

Article 9 of the European convention on human rights is not affected by the Brethren's position. The laws prescribed by a democratic society are necessary for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. There is a balance to strike. For the reasons that have become apparent in the debate, we cannot accept the new clause, but we can continue the dialogue with the Brethren. I am happy to meet

them on future occasions to discuss issues relating to the Bill. However, on this occasion, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Minister

I am grateful to the Minister. I think that he acknowledges the fundamental beliefs that the Brethren have, and the wish of many in the House to see the views of minorities afforded protection. I am grateful for his commitment to

continue the dialogue, and in light of what he has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Charlotte Atkins.]

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Five o'clock till Tuesday 2 March at half-past Nine o'clock.