HL Deb 03 December 1996 vol 576 cc651-62

7.26 p.m.

Lord McNair rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will support the proposal to incorporate a provision banning discrimination on the grounds of race and religion in the revised Treaty of European Union.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it may seem rather late to be asking the Government to support the proposal, in a general sense, to incorporate a provision banning discrimination on the grounds of race and religion in the revised treaty at the next IGC on 14th December. It would indeed be late if others had not for some time now been asking the Government and other EU member governments a similar question.

I shall be looking separately at race and religion, although in the case of some groups, such as the North Africans in France or the Turks in Germany, the two identities of course overlap. Apart from such cases, the subjects need to be considered separately because they each raise different kinds of difficulties for the person who finds himself subjected to discrimination.

I shall discuss what has already been done to move this matter forward, and then, as far as I have been able to determine them, describe the stance on this issue of various member countries. First, however, I should like to make a general point about the pathways by which legislation appears on our statute book. We have directives which, whatever their provenance or genesis, become law in Britain by the official route, as it were, but there are other harmonising measures whose genesis is more informal and which could be said to constitute European legislation by the back door.

One may agree or disagree with individual pieces of legislation, but I am talking about the process. It is an unhealthy process, just because it is secret. I am thinking in particular of law and order measures which may have had their origin in one country, but which, possibly as a result of discussions within the secretive Justice and Home Affairs Committee, find their way on to the statute books of other countries. I shall come back to it, but I feel strongly that no good will come of that process of harmonisation by stealth, which circumvents and subverts those modest democratic processes which have so far evolved within the EU.

If we look at the moves which are already afoot in the direction of the Question I have put, we find that the Irish presidency is putting forward a range of options to amend the treaty in 1997 to deal with racial and religious discrimination. I shall look first at race. Amendment is long overdue. There is no mention of racism in the original Treaty of Rome of 1957. Perhaps it was too soon after a war where racism had figured so largely, and it was inconceivable that it could become a problem in Europe.

The European Commission urged in its White Paper on social policy of July 1994 that there should be such an amendment. The European Parliament has approved the idea on many occasions since 1991. The opportunity has come with the present Inter-governmental Conferences and the certainty that a new treaty will be ready for signing sometime next year.

I turn to the context in which the matter rests. The main aims of the IGCs are to deal with the enlargement of the Community, to reform the Community's own institutions and those of the European Union, which, though that includes the same countries as the Community, is a distinct entity, and to find common measures for dealing with unemployment and poverty.

At the same time, however, the existing workings of the Community and the Union are coming under review. The arguments for a race amendment which are put forward by the CRE and which I endorse include the fact that the EU's commitment to human rights for citizens is incomplete without a commitment to outlaw racial discrimination, and that free movement in European territory is impeded when there is a different standard of protection against racial discrimination in each country. In that respect, we must acknowledge that we, the British, are the leaders in the field. Our legislation—the Race Relations Act 1976—is far superior to anything that exists in the European Community. We can be very proud of that.

The next reason why the proposal is essential is that racial discrimination is economically inefficient because it wastes talent and increases spending on social welfare. Furthermore, racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are socially divisive and are a threat to peace and security.

In addition, resident third country nationals—that is, nationals of a non-EU country who are resident in an EU country—deserve the same standards of protection against discrimination as citizens. Our Race Relations Act has shown the importance of such protection in Britain. Women who are third country nationals are protected against discrimination on the grounds of their gender but they are not protected against racial discrimination if that occurs.

Proposals for exactly what form the treaty modifications should take are many and I do not propose to go into them in detail tonight. EPIC, the European Parliamentary Intercultural Committee, of which I am an executive committee member, and which is chaired by my noble friend Lady Seear—we all wish her a full and rapid recovery—has put forward several amendments. Perhaps the best known of the suggestions is the Starting Point, which was put forward by the Starting Line Group. This is an informal committee which includes legal experts from different European countries. The purpose was to draft a text which would be a model for a European Community directive prohibiting racial and religious discrimination. The group was concerned to test possible objections from representatives from different national legal systems and constitutions. The agreed text, therefore, does not represent any one national or religious point of view and it requires a treaty amendment because the Community is unable to propose such a directive without specific authorisation in the Community treaty.

For reference, the model amendment is called the Starting Point. It proposes, first, to add to Article 3a a new article which seeks: the elimination of discrimination against persons or groups of persons, whether of the European Union or not, on the grounds of race, colour, religion, or national, social or ethnic origin and the promotion of harmonious relations between such persons or groups of persons".

It also proposes a new Part la entitled Non-discrimination between the existing Part 1 and Part 2, but I do not expect the Minister to speak in detail about that. I mentioned it so that we know what we are talking about.

We should remember that current estimates of the ethnic minority population of the European Union as a whole suggest that approximately 16 million people would stand to gain from such a treaty amendment, considering only racial discrimination. That is more than the population of some of the smaller countries such as Belgium and Holland. It is a large number of people.

I turn to religious discrimination, as distinct from discrimination on the grounds of race. Those who are members of minority religions—I refer to traditional Christian denominations and others—are experiencing a growing sense of oppression. As the House will be aware, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and I went to Germany to investigate discrimination in that country. But it is not only in Germany that religious intolerance is becoming commonplace. It is fair to say that almost all the minority religious groups which were banned by the Nazis and which survived that era are now under threat not only from the German authorities but also from the French. The Jehovah's Witnesses in particular are having a rough time in France, but they are not alone. Last year the French Minister of the Interior, apparently in a bid for popular support, boasted that he would take measures against the sects and listed 172, including the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists and many other Christian denominations. The list also included a small Tibetan community in the south of France which is almost certainly Buddhist. He has described it as a dangerous sect. That is most puzzling.

The proposal has historical precedents. I think not only of the religious hysteria of the Crusades but, going back to European history of the 12th and 13th centuries, recall that the hysteria against those who were regarded as witches began in southern France. The European country which seemed to specialise in that was what is now western Germany. The problems which are being caused would be resolved if we had the kind of measure that I am asking the Government to endorse.

7.37 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry

My Lords, I hope that I can claim that the Church of England is firmly opposed to discrimination against a person on either racial or religious grounds. Of course, adding the religious dimension enriches and strengthens the noble Lord's proposal and makes it more complex. A significant amount of discrimination in this country and in Europe is experienced as religious discrimination. That is felt particularly by religious people of Asian origin in this country. A multi-faith forum which meets in my house in Coventry conveys that to me most vividly and strongly each time it meets.

Many young people are growing up in inner cities and identify themselves in religious terms. Research confirms that. The question which the noble Lord raises is crucial for us too. Many who suffer racial attack are abused by their assailants about their religion. The Inner Cities Religious Council, chaired by Sir Paul Beresford under the auspices of the Department of the Environment, recently produced a summary of existing remedies for those who believe that they are being discriminated against because of their faith. It is entitled Challenging Religious Discrimination and I commend it as a guide.

The Commission for Racial Equality has produced a leaflet on religious discrimination by employers. I should like to welcome its work. It is holding public meetings and receiving evidence on religious discrimination. We need to know more about the kind of discrimination that is being experienced and to consider a variety of ways of tackling it. For instance, in Northern Ireland an approach concerned with policy appraisal and fair treatment requires government agencies to consider whether any new policies or practice contain an element of religious bias. Within the Christian community, many of us are concerned that devout Christians should not suffer at work as a result of changes in legislation which previously protected Sunday as a day of shared rest. In letters and conversations, I hear of hardship experienced by many people. It is so important that Sundays should be preserved for the protection of family life.

I wish to support any appropriate and effective action to deal with the vital issue of religious discrimination throughout Europe. We would of course want to stand firmly on the side of human rights and religious freedom for all the citizens of the European Union member countries. Christian values demand that Europe should not define itself at this key moment in its history on the eve of a century in which Europeans will by sheer economic forces be compelled to co-operate more and more, not as fortress Europe, but as a richly multi-racial society committed to the Christian principles of hospitality, protection for the vulnerable and justice for the stranger. The European House should be an "open house", a home. That is why the Churches of this country have committed themselves to a Charter for Racial Justice.

The Churches of Europe played a key part in initiating the Starting Line—now the Starting Point to which the noble Lord referred—and a move towards possible ultimate amendment to the treaty of the European Community to place the elimination of all racial and religious discrimination in the midst of the guiding aims and principles of the Community and to ensure that its institutions are given power and direction in that area.

That is an essential aim. The only question is how it can best be realised. Actual legislation has its dangers. We need to be clearer as to what is the most sensitive and apt remedy for religious discrimination whether through training, through promotion of good practice, through codes of practice or by means of law itself. There may well be questions as to what is the most appropriate direction to take now, and, if that is by way of an amendment to the European Union treaty, then as to what form that amendment should take.

There is serious and growing concern on the issue throughout Europe. This is an urgent matter in our increasingly divided and passion-driven world. But we must not legislate in haste. One could envisage law suits within and between religious communities. There are tensions between, say, the existence of blasphemy laws and the case for legal redress for discrimination by the religious as well as against them. Even if the treaty were to be amended as proposed by the noble Lord, the amendment would need to be fleshed out with directives and the like, the precise terms of which could be contentious.

The position is not helped by the absence of any agreed definition of "religion", though that is certainly not an insuperable objection to legislation as has already been shown. But, in the religious sphere, I have to confess that the principle applies of corruptio optimi pessima—the corruption of the best is worst. What is noblest and most creative in human life can tragically become the most destructive of all.

That apart, in this country, with a Church established by law and all the legal implications that flow from that, the whole question of religious discrimination in the widest sense, beyond that which directly affects the individual, needs very careful handling. I firmly believe, with Professor Adrian Hastings, that the relation between Church and society that has emerged in the history of this country is something profoundly precious for us to bring into the European Community as a vital ingredient. I see it working out in my own city in a way which brings all faiths and religions together into its embrace.

Although I am no lawyer, I can understand that there could be many pitfalls in this kind of legislation. So, believing profoundly in the intention of the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, I want now both eagerly and urgently to support a call to the Government to investigate the position and to come forward with carefully and effectively worked out concrete proposals.

7.43 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, from these Benches I should like, first, to thank the noble Lord, Lord McNair, for giving the House an opportunity to debate this important matter. I should also like to express my appreciation for the fact that the Minister is present this evening. The noble Baroness has a very busy life, with very weighty problems, and yet she has managed to find time to give us the benefit of her views, together with those of her department, on such an important topic.

I was a little worried by the speech made by the right reverend Prelate. He started off with kind words, but then virtually repeated what I consider to be a ministerial speech advocating caution, consideration and reflection. Of course, those things are well understood. We understand that discrimination is a minefield; indeed, racial intolerance is not something to which the whole House or any decent-minded person would subscribe.

I hope, in response to the noble Lord's request, that the Minister will be able to express some sympathy with the thrust of his case. I hope that she will immediately acknowledge that there must be problems in ensuring that such a proposal is implemented. It is well understood that the Irish presidency of the European Community is putting forward a range of options for amending the treaty in 1997 so as to deal with racial and religious discrimination. One of the options includes outlawing other forms of unjust discrimination on grounds, for example, of age, sex, disability and other factors.

The case put forward by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, ably supported by the right reverend Prelate, will I am sure be well understood by the Minister. Quite frankly, I hope that we will hear kind words in response. The proposal under consideration was endorsed in a directive in April 1993. I am indebted to EPIC, like other speakers, for giving me such details. It was also endorsed by the European Parliament in December 1993. The proposals relate to race, colour, religion or national social or ethnic origin.

In a very busy life with so much for us to undertake, one could ask what in actual fact is the need for this House, this Parliament and this country to do more than simply acknowledge the situation. Quite frankly, I believe that the need is perfectly clear. There is no doubting the fact that there is an increase in racial violence and intolerance.

During the first three months of 1992, the number of attacks on foreigners in Germany increased by 400 per cent. over the same period in the preceding year. There were nearly 600 attacks, most of them carried out by people under 20 years of age. In April, a Jewish cemetery in Berlin was desecrated: there had been similar desecrations earlier in France and Britain. In France, too, racist attacks have increased, with North Africans the main targets. An opinion survey in France in November 1991 found that 49 per cent. of respondents had negative views of North Africans, while 62 per cent. wanted to reject immigrants from eastern and central Europe. In Spain, in June 1992, 30 Right-wing extremists attacked a group of North Africans, injuring some of them severely, and about 200 North Africans fled the town of Fraga in fear of further violence. (The Mayor resigned in protest against the failure of the central authorities to prevent the violence, which he had predicted).

In Italy, attacks on seasonal workers from many parts of Africa have been increasing in the south: some victims have been seriously injured by firearms. In Britain, Somalian refugees have suffered stone-throwing and physical assaults in Sheffield, while a mosque in Greenwich, east London, has been desecrated and many people in the area attacked. An Afghan refugee was murdered in the summer in what a police officer described as a racist attack with no possible provocation". Arson attacks have increased in several countries: against African immigrants in north Italy; in Germany, where a refugee hostel in Rostock was set on fire; while in Britain, arson against the homes of south Asians has been happening for many years. These publicised examples represent only a fraction of the violence which occurs.

The Labour Government passed the Race Relations Act in 1976 and the Labour Party has consistently proposed, or supported, stronger penalties for aggravated offences of racial violence or discrimination. It would be of value if we could move the action to another higher, more prominent plane—that is, the European Union—and encourage measures by member states, which have not passed comparable legislation to our own Race Relations Act, perhaps setting time limits and offering patterns for legislation. I would certainly want to argue that Community action should necessarily be undertaken because of the Union's respect for fundamental rights: discrimination interferes with free movement of goods and services.

I noted the very strong component in both previous speeches concerning religion and also the quite legitimate points raised by the right reverend Prelate about the sensitivity of the action of lawyers and experts. I do not wish to become involved in that argument because I am not competent to do so, but there are precedents which exist in directives on equal treatment for men and women. Some will also insist that action should be taken using the third pillar on intergovernmental co-operation. However, in my view there is no need to get involved with that.

The Commission for Racial Equality understands that the Government are opposed to treaty amendment. The Government believe that each government should be encouraged to make its own laws. The Minister is, as always, well briefed and she is well able to deal with these matters. She should know that the intention to seek to amend the treaty is supported by the Runnymede Trust, the Law Society, the Bar Council and many others.

We should support the proposed amendment to the treaty on the grounds that it will extend the protection given to British people under the Race Relations Act to our people elsewhere in Europe, and to other Europeans, and others living in Europe. It does not mean imposing Brussels laws on Britain, but actively encouraging the elimination of discrimination throughout Europe. In 1997 we shall enter the European year against racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. I believe that the time is right to take those actions.

7.51 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, I, too, am grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNair, for providing us with the opportunity. As has already been said, this is an important subject on which we have heard a range of views. As the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, said, it has been a timely opportunity for us to do that, given that the Intergovernmental Conference is taking place now.

We all share the same goal: equality of opportunity regardless of racial origin and freedom from discrimination. I have to say though that we differ from those who have advocated a stronger role for the European Union on the most effective and appropriate way of reaching that goal.

The noble Lord in proposing this debate has raised two issues: whether the Treaty on European Union should be amended to include a provision banning discrimination; and whether such a provision should also cover discrimination on the grounds of religion. These seem like simple propositions, but there are a number of threads which run together here and a range of different considerations which affect the Government's approach.

I believe that the United Kingdom can be proud of its record on race relations, which is significantly better than that of most comparable countries. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord McNair. The United Kingdom has one of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination laws in Europe. As the noble Lord said, we are leaders in the field. This legislation has been developed over many years. It strikes a delicate balance which is appropriate to the situation in the United Kingdom.

We need to recognise that the incidence of racism, discrimination and disadvantage reflects in some measure differences in history, geography, culture and of course the political situation. It is not self-evident that problems in one country will automatically be repeated in another, where the issues may be very different, or that the solutions will be the same.

The Government believe that the prime responsibility in this area rests with member states where action can be targeted at areas of real need. We do not support the idea that the European Community should have any general competence in the field of race relations. We noted that Sub-Committee E of the European Communities Committee of this House expressed similar concern at extending Community competence in relation to racism when it looked at the Commission's communication on racism and xenophobia earlier this year. Some of those difficulties were mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham.

Noble Lords


Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have made that mistake twice in two days. I apologise for referring to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, who will be sitting on those Benches one day. Last night I referred to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln was in the Chamber. I have made a mistake again today. I apologise to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry. I have travelled through Coventry and Birmingham today. I have corrected my error for the record.

Turning to the question of religious discrimination, we do not accept that the European Community should have competence in this field either. The issues surrounding religious discrimination are extremely complex and sensitive. There is no specific legislation in Great Britain covering religious discrimination as such. As yet, there is no evidence of a real problem of discrimination on the grounds of a person's religious beliefs as opposed to his racial or ethnic background.

The Government would be prepared to look at any evidence in this area. But no one yet has presented us with evidence to suggest that existing legislation is inadequate to deal with any mischief which may occur. In the circumstances, we do not see a case for giving the European Community competence to act in that area.

Our strong doubts about European competence in these areas does not mean that we deny the importance of appropriate European level co-operation. On the contrary, I see a key role for co-operation with our European partners. We already work closely together in various fora going beyond the European Union and actively share experience and information.

In the area of tackling xenophobic criminal activity we were very pleased earlier this year to agree the Joint Action on Racism and Xenophobia which marks a significant step forward in tackling racism across Europe. Under the joint action member states will provide evidence to other member states to help convict and punish those committing racist acts; facilitate the search for racist material intended for dissemination in another member state; and provide powers to seize such material.

As the Government have made clear, we are prepared to legislate to close a loophole in our law. That will enable us to seize racist material produced here which is intended for distribution in other member states. The United Kingdom has also agreed that 1997—as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said—should be designated European Year Against Racism. The Government believe that the European year has the potential to make a valuable contribution to the fight against racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism and will help to highlight the benefits of a diverse society. Plans for the year are still being drawn up, but we are determined that the United Kingdom should play a full and constructive part. We have been greatly heartened by the enormous interest shown in the year by all sections of the community. Countless organisations, large and small, are already planning their own events to mark the year, and this is just as it should be, because tackling racism and prejudice is not just about legislation, important though that is. It is also about winning hearts and minds; promotional and awareness raising activities can make a significant contribution towards this.

The noble Lord, Lord McNair, referred to justice and home affairs. The justice and home affairs pillar of the European Union Treaty operates by unanimity and on an intergovernmental basis. It does not produce Community law but international law agreements or conventions. The Government have agreed to submit proposals, which would require United Kingdom legislation, to be scrutinised by Parliament before they are agreed.

Reference was also made to Starting Point. The Government are aware of the work done by the group of lawyers who produced the Starting Point. We are also aware of the fact that their proposal has been endorsed by certain non-governmental organisations in member states. The fact remains that we are not persuaded by their arguments for the reasons which I have already set out.

Reference was made to EPIC. We have also listened carefully to the arguments put forward by EPIC. Indeed my honourable friend the parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Home Office, Mr. Kirkhope, met a delegation from EPIC earlier in the summer of this year. The delegation included the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. My noble friends and myself wish the noble Baroness a speedy recovery. We miss her presence greatly in this House. EPIC's conclusions were presented to my honourable friend in another place. What was said at the meeting was taken careful note of. We kept that very much in mind while reflecting on this issue.

The noble Lord, Lord McNair, referred to experience in other countries, as did the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. Nobody would seek to deny that discrimination and harassment exist in other member states. Our point is that those matters are best dealt with in the context in which they arise. That is why we believe it should be for each member state to deal with them.

I was asked: why is there reluctance on the part of the Government to introduce a specific law against incitement to religious hatred and against religious discrimination? As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry said, the situation is extremely complex and sensitive. Of course it is important to explore the issue carefully with all those groups concerned in the matter. We already have comprehensive legislation on race, and the Race Relations Act 1976, again referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, makes discrimination on grounds of race unlawful. The public order law prohibits incitement to racial hatred. We would be prepared to examine any evidence in this area, but nobody has yet presented us with evidence to suggest that the existing legislation is inadequate to deal with any mischief which may occur.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, mentioned the 1993 directive. The European Union has no legislation on race discrimination. It does not have the power to make such a directive. There have been numerous condemnations of racism and xenophobia by the European Union, including by the European Council Heads of Government. The United Kingdom has joined in those declarations and condemnations.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, also asked what the Government have done about racially motivated violence in the United Kingdom. Again, I say unequivocally that the Government are committed to providing strong protection for ethnic minorities against racial violence and harassment. Violent racial attacks are already well covered by the criminal law. In an appeal case, the then Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Taylor—to whom we also send our very best wishes—stated: it is perfectly possible for the court to deal with any offence of violence which has a proven racial element in it, in a way which makes clear that that aspect invests the offence with added gravity and therefore must be regarded as an aggravating feature". What is dealt with in that situation is the actual offence; however, if the motivation for the offence is racial hatred, that becomes an aggravating feature. We have found in relation to sentencing in the courts—and it has been very impressive—that that aspect has been taken into account and therefore the sentence has been all the more severe as a result of the aggravating feature.

Where there are gaps in the law, we have acted. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 introduced an offence to tackle racial harassment and give the police greater powers to deal with racially inflammatory material. Our proposals on stalking may also help. They will provide protection in cases where victims are threatened or harassed. It will not be necessary to prove intention in those cases.

The noble Lord, Lord Graham, asked whether British citizens of ethnic minority origin are subjected to harassment and even violence when they travel in the European Union. This point is not about discrimination; it is about racially motivated criminal activity. That is completely unacceptable. We believe that the criminal law of the member states should be able to deal with it. This is an area in which a good deal of co-operation already takes place between the member states under the third pillar of the European Union: co-operation in the field of justice and home affairs. It is under that third pillar that we believe this issue belongs. It encourages the highest possible degree of co-operation between member states.

We should be wary of thinking that there are any easy answers in this area. The good community relations that we enjoy in the United Kingdom are very precious. They are the fruits of years of hard work. We owe much to the basic good sense and decency of the people of this country. If we wish to maintain and improve those relations, we should tread very carefully indeed.

This debate has been short but useful. This will go on record as another subject that this House addresses very seriously.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will she accept that Northern Ireland has legislation against religious discrimination and that there is in function there a Fair Employment Agency dealing with the employment aspects of religious discrimination? Is she also aware that in England many Moslem groups would like to see that kind of legislation extended to this jurisdiction?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am certainly aware of what the noble Lord describes as pertaining in Northern Ireland. I am also aware that we have a raft of legislation which gives employees in this country of any race or background a good deal of protection. Given the shortness of the notice of the noble Lord's question, I need to reflect more on whether there is a lacuna about which we have not thought. However, I have referred to a good deal of legislation which is there to protect individuals in work and in their homes and communities.

House adjourned at four minutes past eight o'clock.