Law On Public Authorities Must Be Tightened To Prevent Discrimination In “Faith-Based Welfare” Provision

The National Secular Society has asked the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee to recommend clarifying the law to ensure that when a public body delegates functions such as faith based welfare to a private body, the latter is subject to a duty not to act in a way which is incompatible with human rights. Public authorities are already required not to act in contravention of human rights but recent judicial decisions have cast doubt on the extent to which private organisations to which public functions have been delegated are also subject to the same duty.

Dr Anna Behan, vice president of the National Secular Society, said: “Faith based welfare is being promoted by both Labour and Conservatives and is likely to grow massively in the next few years. Unless a change of the sort we advocate is made, vulnerable people will be put at risk if providers who deliver outsourced services financed with public funds disregard the human rights implications of the way they deliver their services. If those providers include religious organisations which refuse on grounds of ‘conscience’ to ensure that delivery is made in a non-discriminatory manner, we fear that those whose belief or sexuality does not ‘fit in’ with the ethos of the provider may suffer.

“The Government was so concerned over this issue that it intervened in a case involving a London Borough by seeking to ensure that the meaning of ‘public authority’ covers elderly and vulnerable people receiving care from a private provider on behalf of a public authority. Its intervention was unsuccessful, however.

“Recipients of services outsourced by public authorities frequently have no choice of provider which makes vulnerable individuals especially at risk. The non-religious (and those who may on occasion be identified as religious but for whom religion does not play a central role in their lives) will also be at significant risk in their dealings with the state unless they have clear protection.”

The NSS is calling for clarity that Section 6 of the Human Rights Act applies not only to pure public authorities but also to those to whom those authorities delegate their functions. It has done so in a submission in response to a call for evidence from the Committee in respect of a short inquiry into the meaning of “public authority”.