NSS battles to minimise religious opt outs in Equality Bill

The Government is pushing the Equality Bill through Parliament at breakneck speed in an endeavour to ensure it reaches the statute book more or less intact before the General Election.

It completed its passage through the Commons before Christmas; now in the Lords, where it is about half way through its allotted time. Presumably to ensure it doesn’t survive, Lord Tebbit and others have attempted to slow progress to a snail’s pace by making inordinately long speeches. In contrast, the Government and LibDems are cooperating to reduce debate and amendments to a minimum in order to hasten progress and the likelihood of the Bill getting through. This has restricted our ability to table as many amendments as we would have liked. Most of the key items we are concerned with will come up within the next week.

The issue in the Bill that looks likely to cause the greatest conflict is over the European Commission’s “Reasoned Opinion”, which was prompted by the NSS, to require radical amendment of the existing law giving religious organisations practically carte blanche exemption to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. It was the most contentious issue at the Lords’ second reading before Christmas, and as a result the Government has proposed an amendment to slightly soften the wording it had already put in the Bill to meet the Commission’s objections. It is clear that they have not gone remotely far enough for the religious lobby, most — including the Archbishop of York — of whom seem determined to retain the very wording that the Commission state breaches the Commission’s employment Directive.

We give notice now to the Government that if it gives into the religious pressure and allows wording that breaches the Directive, we will once more complain to the Commission. Given the reasoned opinion is already the second request to bring the law into line, it is likely the Government will face humiliating formal censure and even prosecution in the European Court of Justice.

The NSS has been engaged in an intensive period of parliamentary lobbying on other aspects of the Equality Bill in recent weeks. We have been consulting with peers on Labour, Lib Dem and cross benches, as well as being involved in negotiations with the Government and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Our concerns have been wide ranging, but particularly in connection with exemptions that permit discrimination in employment against those of the “wrong” faith or none, be they teachers, headteachers or workers in faith based welfare (which is likely to be a major growth area in coming years). We have had to prioritise ruthlessly and one casualty has been to challenge once more the “Scouts” exemption which permits existing charities (not just religious ones) to impose a religious oath.

We have also been working hard researching legal and practical aspects of caste discrimination, which is not yet a protected characteristic, despite having made its way to these shores from South Asia. As well as researching, providing briefings and drafting amendments to tight deadlines we have had to react to others’ amendments and comments in the chamber.

Archbishop makes eloquent case for removal of bishops’ bench

Perhaps the most irresponsible intervention in the House of Lords came from the Archbishop of York, who seems oblivious of member states’ obligations to European Directives. He was determined to ignore the recent Reasoned Opinion from the European Commission requiring that the law that gave almost carte blanche to organised religions to discriminate in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation to be amended. He appears to consider that organised religion should be above any law, national or international.

How did we get a law that breached the Directive so flagrantly in the first place? Because the Government, to its shame, bowed to threats from the Archbishops’ Council on 27 January 2003 and inserted into the law, almost verbatim, the words as demanded by the Church after the public consultation had closed. This was done without further consultation of those likely to be adversely affected and despite warnings in both Houses and by a Joint Parliamentary Committee that the wording was likely to be in conflict with the Directive.

And the Archbishop will not have forgotten that the leading UK case law on this matter is none other than Reaney.v. Hereford [Anglican] Diocesan Board of Finance in which the Church behaved abominably and heartlessly, where the bishop himself refused employment to a youth worker who was the top candidate for a job simply because he was gay. The Church lost humiliatingly and later withdrew its notice of appeal.

So, we have the second most senior prelate using his privileged position in the House of Lords to seek to legislate in breach of EC law, counter to equality, and in a matter which is entirely for the self-interest of his Church. What better case could there be for removing the Bishop’s Bench?