HC Deb 15 September 2003 vol 410 cc585-6
22. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

Whether the Church Commissioners have set or intend to set a requirement relating to sexual orientation for any of their employees in non-proselytising roles; and if he will make a statement. [129573]

Second Church Estates Commissioner(Mr. Stuart Bell)

Good afternoon, Mr. Speaker. The Church Commissioners and the other national Church institutions are committed to an equal opportunities policy that provides comprehensive safeguards against discrimination on those and other grounds. The policy is currently being examined to ensure that it is consistent with the two new sets of employment regulations that will come into force in December. It is unlikely to need fundamental change.

Dr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the sexual orientation employment regulations were changed at a late stage to allow organised religions to set an employment requirement on grounds of sexual orientation in order to comply with religious doctrine or to avoid offending the religious susceptibilities of a significant number of their followers. That exemption has been questioned by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments as possibly being ultra vires, and a judicial review is threatened by the trade unions. Therefore, how can he say what he has just said and how does he justify his remarks earlier this year, when he said that the Church is opposed entirely to discrimination of any sort and, in particular, to the discrimination of the sort to which my hon. Friend refers."?—[Official Report, 30 June 2003; Vol. 408, c. 17.] Furthermore, a letter from the Archbishops Council, dated 23 January, requests the Government to add to the regulations the very words that I have cited.

Mr. Bell

I surmise that that supplementary was written before the hon. Gentleman heard my reply. All anti-discrimination legislation carries the scope for organisations to apply genuine occupational requirements to jobs for which it can be objectively demonstrated that a person with or without a particular characteristic is required. Our policy is comprehensive, and it covers discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, nationality, colour, culture, sexual orientation, disability or age.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I wonder, therefore, whether my hon. Friend will comment on the fact that at present the Church is able to discriminate on the grounds of gender against its women employees taking high office in the Church?

Mr. Bell

There is no such discrimination in the Church and I beg to differ from my hon. Friend. She will be aware that 2,000 women have been ordained in the Church of England since the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993. As I have already pointed out, we are anti-discriminatory in our Church and will continue to be so.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his answer; it is about as clear as it can be that dinner ladies employed in Church of England schools are not going to be sacked because they are lesbian and that caretakers are not going to be sacked because they are gay. Could the Church also take on something of a proselytising role and persuade other Churches to follow its example and, for that matter, in its own proselytising jobs, including bishoprics, could it adopt the same policy?

Mr. Bell

I am always grateful for interventions from my hon. Friend. He relieves me somewhat, however, as the question dealt only with non-proselytising roles.