HC Deb 11 June 1976 vol 912 cc1965-9
Mr. Bradford

I beg to move Amendment No. 50, in page 12, line 31, at end insert of religious belief and'.

The reason for the amendment is not simply again to discuss the difficulties of drafting but to point out to the Government that if the present drafting of this provision is retained the words "political opinion" can mean, and we believe will come to mean, something quite different from the meaning intended by the Government. It is a question not merely of the niceties of drafting but of trying to achieve what we understand the Government to mean, a concept with which we agree.

The difficulty, which was demonstrated again and again in Committee, is that the Government are trying to ensure that no one is discriminated against because of his religion and are trying to ensure that that does not happen by removing any recourse to consideration of his political opinion. We understand that and we have the greatest sympathy with it. However, we believe that to retain the wording in Clause 16 as it now stands will not achieve that objective.

The difficulty, as I see it, is that religious discrimination does not necessarily include political discrimination. I might also make the point that in Northern Ireland one would concede that political discrimination takes place, but it exists outside consideration of religion. The problem to which we are addressing ourselves is how, in some way or another, to arrive at a satisfactory wording which safeguards a person from being discriminated against because of a legitimate political opinion while the employer is all the time trying to discriminate against him because of his actual religious belief. We do not believe that the wording in the clause achieves that. We believe that if the Government accepted the amendment we would cover that possibility so that religious belief can be recognised as the basis for discrimination without using the smokescreen of political opinion to discriminate.

I emphasise that if we leave in the words "political opinion" as baldly as they appear in the clause we shall be opening the door to all kinds of considerations that will make industrial and commercial life in Northern Ireland very difficult indeed. That point was expanded admirably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) in Committee. He made the point that in Northern Ireland there is the possibility that discrimination will take place on the basis that one man belongs to a particular shade of unionism while another man does not. We know that that is not the Government's intention, but that is what will happen, and will be allowed to happen, under the terms of the Bill if we do not clarify precisely that the words "political opinion" are included only as a safeguard against the possibility of political opinion being used as a smokescreen for religious discrimination.

Mr. Moyle

Again the House is facing a difficult problem, which we all understand and to which we are trying to seek roughly the same solution. In the end a judgment has to be made between the Bill as drafted and the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford). In Northern Ireland there is a close relationship between political and religious views. I have met Protestants who are in favour of Republican regimes and philosophies and I have met Catholics who are in favour of the Union, but the occasions when one meets such people are sufficiently rare for us to make a mental note when it occurs.

The question is, while we are attempting basically to remove religious discrimination, what do we do in respect of political discrimination? The solution which the Government have adopted, with certain specific exemptions made in the Bill, is that we would move against discrimination in terms of employment on both religious and political grounds, whereas Opposition Members say that only where political discrimination can be allied with discrimination on religious grounds should we bring in the provisions of the Bill. The struggle is to try to get the right balance.

On reflection I would like to keep the Bill as it is, because the close coincidence between religious and political discrimination in Northern Ireland is such that we ought to draw the bounds of absence of discrimination as widely as possible. In any case, there is nothing particularly morally attractive about discriminating against people, in terms of employment, on political grounds either. From that point of view, I think there is some justification for the agency bringing political views into the ambit of its investigations. Having reached that conclusion, I must urge the House to reject the amendment.

Mr. Powell

I feel that the Minister of State gave a fair statement of the real difficulties and the dilemma which Clause 16 attempts but, on his admission as well as in our view, fails to solve. His case is that in the end we cannot solve it and that we have to opt for more or less than we intended. There is no doubt about our intention, if we can compass it, and that is to avoid religious discrimination escaping the Bill because it may be represented as discrimination on political grounds. I think that during the long time we spent in Committee there was general agreement that that was the object. However, . the difficulty is how to identify political discrimination which is really a cloak for religious discrimination.

In the amendment we have attempted to solve the problem by saying that both elements must be present. Therefore, in applying its mind to a proposition the agency, and eventually a court, would take the two concepts together so that it would be impossible simply to run out by saying that it was only on political grounds, because a man was a Unionist or a Republican, that one was admittedly discriminating against him. I think it is unsatisfactory to take the alternative course. In Committee our original amendment was to omit all political opinion. That is the minimal solution, but the maximal solution, which is what is contained in the Bill, is also open to objection.

3.0 p.m.

The Minister of State said that political opinion in Northern Ireland is closely linked with religious belief, but it is only one difference of political opinion which is linked with religious belief. For example, the difference of political opinion between the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) and myself has nothing to do with religious beliefs. I am not sure how he and I stand relatively in religious belief, because in these debates we tend to oversimplify and too rigidly to classify that difference in religious belief, but there is what could be a bitter political division, which can result in undoubted discrimination, which has nothing to do with religious belief and is as purely political in Northern Ireland as differences in this country between Socialism and—if there is still such a thing—Conservatism.

We are saying in the Bill that we cannot deal with what we want to deal with and that, therefore, we must embrace something larger. The Minister of State, like his predecessors, sought to justify that by arguing that discrimination on grounds of political opinion is not a good thing anyhow and therefore, even if it has nothing to do with the purposes of the Bill and the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, we might as well hook it in too. We who represent Northern Ireland constituencies are not happy with that position. Whatever may be the debate on religious discrimination in Northern Ireland—and we shall be briefly returning to it in the debate on Third Reading—we would certainly say that, if it is to be the law of a part of the United Kingdom that one may not discriminate on grounds of political opinion in the natural and ordinary sense, that ought to apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. We are not prepared in Northern Ireland to be put in the dock and to be placed under a special constraint which does not apply to the rest of the kingdom.

My conclusion from all this—this is one of the most important issues in the framing of the Bill—is that we are left with something that is inherently unsatisfactory. We are left with an extension of the purview of the operations of the agency which is not justified by the purposes of the Bill. We are left facing a failure to define in statutory form what we all of us know we mean and want to bring within the scope of the Bill, excluding everything else.

This, therefore, I am afraid—I say this as much of the Minister of State's attempt as of our own—is a confession of failure. I do not think that a. confession of failure is something which is particularly agreeable to register in the Lobbies, but it ought to be registered as candidly as possible in the debates. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford), therefore, who has been one of those who have given their attention in Committee and since to trying to find a solution, will find himself facing the disagreeable conclusion that we have tried and we have failed. In failing, however, we are in the company of the Government, except that they have failed in the opposite direction to that in which we have failed.

Amendment negatived.

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