Clause 186

Equality Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 2nd July 2009.

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Charities

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I beg to move amendment 252, in clause 186, page 133, line 24, leave out subsections (5) and (6).

An amendment to protect an individual from discrimination from a charity because of their atheism.

This is a probing amendment to ask whether it is justified to have an exemption in respect of the Scout Association, as that is what the clause relates to. The Scout Association is an excellent organisation that does brilliant work. It is, in many cases, supported by public authorities and given accommodation by schools and public authorities. Many young people want to join if they can because their friends belong, and it is often the only or the main extracurricular activity in the community.

A provision was written into the Equality Act 2006 saying that although charities could not discriminate against people on the basis of their religion unless it was written into their charitable instrument and otherwise justified, organisations that had had such requirements, now considered inappropriate, before 18 May 2005 would be allowed to continue to do so. The impact is that children who cannot sincerely say that they believe in God cannot join the Scouts and people who wish to help promote or work within the Scouts as scout leaders—the enormous bulk of whom are not religious, as the Scouts are not a religious organisation; they just have a joining oath—are not allowed to do so. Many scout groups are short of leaders, so what they do when a qualified person in the community wants to work with young people is to say, “Well, just cross your fingers when you say the oath.”

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry

I rise simply to seek elucidation. Did I hear the hon. Gentleman aright when he said that he thought the amendment extended only to the Scouts—in other words, that no other bodies have pre-existing vested rights, whether they are atheistic and exclude believers or nominally include believers? I think that he  is nodding on that point. Secondly, if he considers that the Scout Association is indeed the only organisation affected—this is, perhaps, an indirect question to the Minister—will issues of hybridity arise?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman’s last point, because I have limited knowledge, and people might say that my knowledge, even in those limited areas, is limited and it does not extend to issues of hybrid Bills and so on.

I do not know of any organisation that is not otherwise covered by the exemption that is allowed for charities with a religious object, but which has a joining oath that is not otherwise pursued, as is so in respect of scouting activities. It is well known that the Scouts are anxious not to exclude people, but it is sad that their solution is to ask people to be insincere when signing up to the oath. I am not saying that that is the Scouts’ official policy and I am not saying that I approve or disapprove of that.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Can the hon. Gentleman give me one example of the Scouts actually saying that in writing, as a definitive statement?

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I can give the hon. Gentleman that. I will send him examples of people who have written to me, and examples from other organisations, complaining that they were not allowed to join unless they took this oath and saying that they were told—I do not see why they should lie because they want to join the Scouts—that the solution would be to make the statement insincerely. I can understand that, because the Scouts do not want to lose people from the community who happen not to be of the same religion or are not God-fearing, as it were. So there is an unfortunate situation, although the Scouts would be none the worse if they dropped the oath, which discriminates against both children and leaders. Continuing with the oath deprives people of access to scouting activities and deprives the Scouts of people who would be good leaders working in that organisation as volunteers.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The hon. Gentleman will wish to know that there is an excellent alternative to the Scouts that was set up precisely because of this sort of God-fearing and monarchy-fearing nonsense—the Woodcraft Folk.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I am not here to big-up the Woodcraft Folk or to big-down the Scouts. People will make their own decisions. However, in many communities the Scouts is the only game in town and therefore there is no choice. I do not think that such organisations, which are not religious, should have religious tests or not-religious tests. I am grateful for Committee members’ advice. Everyone reading these proceedings will now be encouraged to go down that path. I want to stress that I am not hostile to the Scouts—they do a great job—but they would be aided in their work if they were not allowed certain—

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am sympathetic to what the hon. Member for Stroud said. There is an active scout movement, and a guide movement, in my constituency. Those youth  organisations are popular but they are not the only ones. Young people can join an extraordinary range of organisations. The problem is usually not a shortage of young people, but of adults willing to put the time in to run them.

The hon. Gentleman is in danger of creating non-real examples. In my time as a Member of Parliament, I have never had a single complaint from anybody who has been turned away from the Scouts or told that they have to fib about whether they believe in God. The hon. Gentleman is creating fictional problems that do not exist in the real world and is asking us to deal with them. That is unnecessary. Having started with a paean to how great the Scouts were, he spent the next five minutes saying what a dreadful organisation it is and what a dreadful way they go about doing things, including telling people to be hypocrites before they are able to join. That is not my experience of the Scout Association as it operates in my constituency and, looking around at Committee members, it does not seem that they have experienced that either.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

There is a real world outside the hon. Gentleman’s constituency surgery and his own experiences, just as I accept that there is a real world outside my direct experience. I will send him the examples that I have received, as well as sending them to the hon. Member for Stroud.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

Send them to all members.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I will send them to all Committee members, then the hon. Member for Forest of Dean will see that he is wrong in saying that the problem does not exist. It is no surprise that people who are concerned about this matter might not feel willing to come to him if he is not sympathetic to them. However, that is their choice and his choice. At no point did I say that the Scout Association was a dreadful organisation. As the hon. Gentleman reports, some scout groups are short of leaders and one reason for that is their unnecessary religious test. In many places, Scouts are the only or main youth activity. Not every constituency is blessed with the youth organisations that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean talks about in his constituency. Where we have non-religious youth organisations, they should be inclusive, and that is all that I am asking for.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 10:15 am, 2nd July 2009

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman, like me and my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, went to Thame in my constituency to see all the Oxfordshire scouts gathered together. An enormous number of scouts spent an entire weekend there. The message that came across was that they had huge numbers of people waiting to join. Many parents, who volunteer on a regular basis, were also there. There was no shortage of volunteers and no overt religion. All I saw was scouts having an extremely good time in very good weather and really living up to the expectations that we would have insisted that young people have these days.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I am sure that it was a jolly weekend. I have been to scout jamborees in my own constituency, and the hon. Gentleman is right; they are not an overtly  religious organisation. So why impose a religious test that prevents scout groups, on some occasions, from getting the leaders that they need? It may be very viable in Thame, but there are scout groups of which I am aware that are struggling because of a lack of leaders. We know that the Criminal Records Bureau test is one cause of their recruiting difficulties.

Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families)

Just to even this out a bit, my local scout groups are crying out for volunteers to come and lead them. I do not know whether the inhibition is to do with the religion test, but there is an issue about getting volunteers. This is therefore an important debate, and I am shocked that hon. Members are so dismissive of something that might remove a barrier to people’s taking part.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

In conclusion—

Mr. Harperrose—

John Masonrose—

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I give way to the hon. Member for Forest of Dean.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, there is a shortage of scout leaders, and a number of things have been adduced to that. He mentioned the CRB checks, but there is the issue of the busy lives that people lead now. Employers expect people to be more flexible and available, and do not always allow them to commit the time. I have had lots of those discussions with scout groups in my constituency and with those who are considering making the commitment. I have to say that people have never not got involved because of the concern that the hon. Gentleman raises. It is simply not an example that I, or other hon. Members across the United Kingdom, have come across, apart from the hon. Gentleman in Oxford, West and Abingdon.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

There are very clear rules about using mobile communications in Committee, but I notice that my phone has three text messages. Were I to open them, which I will not, I suspect that they will say, “Here is an example”, or “I will send you an example.” The hon. Gentleman represents one 646th of the country. I hope he will accept that if I send him examples, they exist. If I do not send him examples, then he can have a field day next Tuesday.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order. I have been very tolerant. By nature, this Bill has to have a wide scope. I see people shaking their heads in disappointment. As I said, the Bill must be granted a wide scope of debate and discussion. On this particular point, however, we have gone as far as we can. I, as Chair of the Committee, will accept the hon. Gentleman’s experiences in good faith. We all know what our own individual experiences are, so can we just accept them? Moreover, the shortage of scout leaders is not relevant to this Committee. Let us get back to the amendment, please.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

I was merely taking interventions. I agree 100 per cent. with what you have just said, Mr. Benton. Does the hon. Gentleman still want to intervene?

John Masonindicated dissent.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

Good. I have concluded, therefore, that we would be better off without the exemption—regardless of whether or not the Scouts feel it is important—because without it, society will be better for it, young people will be better treated, and the Scouts will be an even more effective and prosperous organisation.

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

You have only to say God and God will do. You can be an associate member if you do not say it.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Science Minister

Again, I am not sure whether that was more expansive or less expansive than the Minister’s reply in the previous debate. I think that it was more expansive. I think that she was talking to you, Mr. Benton, so perhaps you are considering joining the Scouts. I think she said that someone only has to say “God” to join, and if they do not they can be an associate member. There are examples in discrimination law of such situations not being acceptable, for example women being admitted to private members’ clubs on different terms from men. It should be an either/or.

The analogy with discrimination against women is apposite because the Bill seems to argue that if clubs admit women, they should be admitted on full terms. I think that the Minister was defending, by implication, admitting atheists but not on full terms. I do not know whether she is able or willing to justify differential treatment according to religion, but it amounts to the same thing. Someone is discriminated against on the basis of their religion if they are not allowed to join, or if they are not allowed to lead because they are only an associate member. I shall first send Members those examples, and then seek them out in the corridors of this place before the next stage of the Bill to see whether they are convinced. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 186 ordered to stand part of the Bill.