§ 2 Clause 1, Page 1, line 12, leave out from beginning to ("any").
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2.
2089 Amendment No. 2 is an amendment of some importance because there was a very significant debate in your Lordships' House about the position of Churches and other religious organisations. Your Lordships will remember those debates quite vividly. There was quite considerable correspondence thereafter between, notably, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, a number of the bishops and a large number of representatives, one way or another, of other religious organisations. We in the Home Office promised that we would pay careful attention to those representations and we have demonstrated that we have done so. We had a number of meetings, which were all extremely courteous and fruitful.
Your Lordships passed certain amendments to the Bill. We came to the conclusion that they ought not to remain in the Bill in their then form—I underline those words—and another place, on the 20th May, voted to remove them. We concluded that we should put our minds to a proper and proportionate response to the concerns of Churches and religious organisations. The important aspect of this present group—it consists of Amendments Nos. 2, 8, 14, 16 and 37—is Amendment No. 37. Perhaps I may quote it to assist your Lordships:If a court's determination of any question arising under this Act might affect the exercise by a religious organisation (itself or its members collectively) of the Convention right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, it must have particular regard to the importance of that right".I have mentioned the matters that have been raised. In particular, without being unduly selective, I shall mention the concerns which were moderately pressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon. We responded to his concerns in two ways: first, by provisions in the School Standards and Framework Act; and, secondly, by this present clause.
The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary in these terms:The proposed new clause does not provide the firm guarantee of the Churches' continued doctrinal independence which we have sought, and you will appreciate that not all Church members will therefore be satisfied with it.Nevertheless, I am grateful both for the new clause and for the proposed amendments to the Human Rights Bill and the School Standards and Framework Bill which, together with the assurances given by the Lord Chancellor …. and the other amendments already made …. I believe constitute a significant improvement".Cardinal Hume wrote:I also welcome the fact that the Government has moved an amendment to the Human Rights Bill in order to meet the more general anxiety we have expressed. I recognise the difficulty of framing an amendment in a way which is consistent with the Convention. I have sought the best legal advice and my initial assessment is that the amendment in the form tabled by the Government may be the best that can reasonably be achieved to reinforce the protection given by the Convention to the churches and other faiths under Article 9".
§ Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 2.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ Lord Henley
My Lords, in an earlier part of my life, in particular in the Department of Social Security, I was defeated on many occasions by my noble kinsman Lord Russell on various social security Bills. On a number of occasions those defeats were reversed or partially 2090 reversed in another place. I remember that on each occasion my noble kinsman obtained part of what he asked for, he was grateful for it and welcomed the half a loaf rather than a full loaf. All I can say on this occasion is that we welcome the fact that the Government were prepared to move some way even if they were not prepared to move as far as this House originally sought to push them when my noble friend Lady Young and others made their original amendments to this Bill. On this occasion I thank the noble Lord and the Government for that half a loaf, even if it is not a full loaf.
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, on behalf of the Churches I reiterate our gratitude to the Government for taking our concerns into account in these amendments in the way that has already been described. Perhaps I may take a little time to correct any misunderstanding that has arisen about the fact that Churches and other religious bodies have pressed for these amendments. The Churches are deeply committed to human rights, both in theory and practice, and support the incorporation of the European convention into United Kingdom law.
It is important to set the great body of human rights law that has arisen since the Second World War into some kind of historical perspective. Above all, it has been about the protection of the individual against tyranny—first the tyranny of the Nazis and then the tyranny of Soviet-style communism.
Societies contain not only individuals but institutions such as trade unions, schools, families and churches. If we are genuinely concerned about a plural society we must be concerned not only about the rights of individuals but also the legitimate claims of those intermediate institutions. Therefore it is particularly welcome that in Amendment No. 37 there is a reference to an organisation—in this case a religious organisation, itself or its members collectively. We very much welcome the fact that these intermediate institutions in the forms of Churches and other religious bodies have legitimate claims.
Let me give one brief example. Let us suppose that there is a voluntary aided school—either Jewish, Moslem or Christian—and the head teacher of that school decides to convert to another religion. If he claims a right to freedom of speech, and therefore the right to remain in his position, what would happen to the particular ethos of that voluntary aided school? Under the amendment which the Government have incorporated into this Bill, it is said that if the matter comes to court then the court must have particular regard to the importance of the right of the institution.
It is true that the amendment does not go quite as far as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the religious bodies wanted. However, I hope that your Lordships will feel that a reasonable balance has been struck so that the individual's right to freedom will be measured against the legitimate claims of religious institutions. I reiterate the thanks of the Churches to the Government for hearing their concerns and incorporating them into these amendments.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, it is very good to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. One can think of very few religious leaders who are more deeply committed to the cause of human rights. No one doubts at all that the Churches in this country are indeed deeply committed to the effective protection of human rights.
It seems to us that these amendments strike a fair balance. On the one hand, they draw attention to the particular importance of freedom of conscience, belief and religion, without seeking to distinguish between one religion and another, speaking of religious bodies generally, which seems very wise, so that there is no hierarchy or exclusivity, and being declaratory of what we have understood the convention in any case to have guaranteed; that is to say, not in any way trespassing on the regulation of divine worship, including the administration of the sacrament or admission to church membership or the priesthood, which are all plainly private matters. On the other hand, there are situations in which the Church is part of the state or exercises public functions; for example, in maintaining voluntary schools. In such a case the law already intervenes; for example, by forbidding racial discrimination in providing education in all schools, including voluntary schools. Even religious bodies are capable of breaching convention rights and cannot be above the law of the convention; and no one disputes that.
Therefore, it seems to us that this provision does not in any way seek to immunise religious bodies from the convention but respects freedom of conscience, belief and religion, drawing attention to the importance of that and maintaining the distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere. For all those reasons we support this balanced approach.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am grateful for those generous responses. We in Government did not ever think that the Churches or other religious organisations were seeking a selfish or partisan advantage. They had legitimate concerns. I am grateful to your Lordships for recognising that we have addressed them fairly and achieved the proper balance.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.