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Equality Bill

Part of the debate – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:39 am on 9th June 2009.

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Jon Benjamin: The discussion to this point has picked up a number of themes, one of which is the lack of uniformity, be it in the Church or the Jewish religion, over how these things will be applied. In the case of the youth worker who comes out or whose marriage breaks down, an important reaction may be that of the parents or the members of the organisation—how they would respond to that—and,  again, rightly or wrongly, whether the wider population would endorse that view. Their concerns and their rights to practise their religion and to have people interacting with them and their children must be considered.

There is a lack of uniformity, and I do not think that one can fairly press any one of us for an answer—goodness knows, in the Jewish community there is a great breadth of opinion on all those issues. Equally, it comes down to the nature of the occupation or the job. It is very difficult. Maybe Parliament should avoid trying to give a definitive black-and-white view on any of those things.

“Genuine occupational requirement” is a helpful phrase as far as it goes. “Reasonableness” and those words beloved by us lawyers also help, but ultimately, it will come down to not the courts, I hope, but the Equality and Human Rights Commission or whoever is providing guidance. I understand that the commission is considering providing guidance—perhaps statutory guidance—to help people, employers and potential employees through what will be a minefield.

It occurs to me that, taking the example of faith schools, which is an area I am quite involved in, it should be incumbent on employers to provide in the job specification some justification for what is a genuine occupational requirement and the mores and standards of behaviour and activity that they expect. Then, in all fairness to the applicants for a job, they would understand what was required of them and whether they would be comfortable working in a particular environment. That might avoid a lot of these problems down the line, but of course, one cannot foresee a marriage breaking down or someone’s lifestyle changing significantly.

Therefore, there is a very up-front and open approach to what is expected of people. Perhaps the document can be used in some evidential way to show whether the requirements of the community in which someone is seeking to work are set out clearly, so that they know what they are letting themselves in for, and equally, whether the community, the Church, the organisation or the religious institution has set out its stall clearly at the outset.