Clause 84

Equality Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 7:15 pm on 23rd June 2009.

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Interpretation and exceptions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I want to raise an issue identified by the Joint Committee on Human Rights with respect to clause 84, which apparently widens the existing exemption for the curriculum. Subsection (2) states:

“Nothing in this Chapter applies to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum.”

That appears to remove any restriction on discrimination against a pupil on any protected characteristic in respect of the content of the curriculum. That is of concern.

The explanatory notes state:

“This ensures that the Bill does not inhibit the ability” of schools

“to include a full range of issues, ideas and materials in their syllabus and to expose students to thoughts and ideas of all kinds.”

That is wider than the exemption in schedule 3 from the prohibition on religious or belief-related discrimination in the provision of services in relation to anything done in connection with the curriculum of any school. There is an argument and a debate to be had about the exemption for religion in respect of the curriculum, but I want to consider how the measure appears to be drawn more widely and seek clarification.

Current law provides the exemption for the content of the curriculum from the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief. That stems from the Equality Act 2006. However, the provision is wider. I can understand that some people might argue that given that the curriculum includes religious education, there needs to be an exemption in respect of religion or belief. I am not convinced that that is required. I will not go into why, as now is not the time, but the concern is that it appears that the prohibition on discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation, for example, will not apply to the content of the curriculum.

The worry is that even if one has injunctions on how the curriculum is delivered, its mere content, particularly when there is no national curriculum on religious education, for example, might lead to detrimental treatment of pupils of a different sexual orientation—homosexuality, one presumes. The issue is the curriculum itself, or the textbook, not how the curriculum is delivered. Therefore, there is already a concern that sexual orientation might not be adequately covered, even under the existing exemptions, and the catch-all provision seems to go further.

The explanatory notes state that concerns such as the one I have raised would be caught because

“The way in which the curriculum is taught is...covered by the reference to education in clause 80(2)(a)”, which states that the responsible body of a school must not discriminate against a pupil

“in the way it provides education for the pupil”.

In other words, it must

“ensure issues are taught in a way which does not subject pupils to discrimination.”

However, I am worried that that is trumped by clause 84(2). For example, a gay pupil might feel that they were being taught that they were of less moral worth because of an inherent characteristic, but they might not be able to invoke any of the protections in the Bill in the face of such a wide exemption. Given that the provision appears to cover all schools and all strands, I do not think it is required for religious schools to maintain their ethos. I would be grateful if the Minister was able to clarify her understanding of clause 84(2).

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office 7:30 pm, 23rd June 2009

As the hon. Gentleman said, clause 80 will provide protection for children to ensure that the curriculum is taught in a way that does not subject pupils to discrimination. Clause 84 replicates a provision in the Equality Act 2006 and extends it to other protected characteristics. This is about clarifying the full educational freedoms of schools to decide what resources to use so that they will not have to justify or defend themselves from accusations of discrimination when they are following a reasonable and balanced approach to a curriculum. If we do not include the exemption, it would be possible for schools to be faced with cleansing the curriculum itself for indirect discrimination. For example, it would be very uncomfortable if a Jewish boy made a claim for discrimination for being taught “The Merchant of Venice”. It would be difficult for a school to cope with that, and it would get bogged down in having to justify itself. Whatever is taught needs to be taught appropriately, and teaching practices need to be fully inclusive. It is not the Bill’s intention that schools should be barred or discouraged from teaching the full curriculum with ideas that challenge pupils and lead to open and honest discussion and contemplation, which is why we think the clause is necessary.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I think that the Minister accepted that this was an extension of the existing law, and she gave a justification for the provision in the Bill. Is there evidence that before this attempt to extend the existing exemption of the curriculum to all strands, claims were made against schools about ideas in the curriculum that might, as she says, be challenging—I am all in favour of that form of education? If there was no problem before, providing a wide exemption might enable some schools with a specific agenda to get a message across outwith the provision on discrimination through the way in which children are taught or the curriculum is delivered.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office

The pressures were from the religion and belief sector, and we dealt with those. We did not envisage that the curriculum was covered prior to 2006 by discrimination legislation, but we are now making it absolutely clear that it is. Does that help?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I suppose it helps to explain why the change is being made. However, I hope that the Committee will reflect on whether potential for mischief is being created in respect of the wide exemption due to the lack of clarity in determining what is curriculum and what is the delivery of the curriculum. If the problem is a challenging idea, one would expect that to be delivered to the pupil through education. My concern is that we will be muddying the waters rather than keeping clear restrictions on what schools should be doing in sensitive areas such as race and sexual orientation.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 84 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.