HL Deb 07 June 2000 vol 613 cc1189-208

7.3 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The issue that I raise is one that should have been resolved during the last century. It must certainly be resolved in this one. It is the issue of religious discrimination. It is unacceptable that, whereas the principle of religious toleration has been legally established in the British Isles for the past 150 years, religious discrimination is nevertheless still legally practised and tolerated today. That is why I place this Private Member's Bill before the House. The Bill seeks to extend the ambit of the Race Relations Act 1976 to include discrimination on grounds of religion.

All that needs to be done to include religion as an additional ground for proving discrimination by way of differential treatment is to insert the words "or religious" after the word "racial" whenever it appears in the wording of the Act, and to insert the words "or religion" after the word "race" wherever it appears in the Act. I appreciate that the wording of the Bill in its present form is not complete, but it can be perfected. In the meantime, the principle and intent are simple and clear.

I begin by pointing out that it is misleading to assert that the provisions in the Race Relations Act 1976 regarding indirect discrimination can be successfully invoked in their present form when dealing with cases of religious discrimination. They cannot. They can be invoked only in cases where there is also an element of racial discrimination. Even then, it is necessary to prove that the discrimination was intentional before compensation can be awarded. If my proposal is accepted, this lacuna in the law will cease to exist and those who are discriminated against on grounds of their religion will then be able to seek the justice which at present, I regret to say, they are denied in the courts of this land.

I hasten to emphasise that my Bill is concerned with religious discrimination, not philosophical or ideological discrimination. I am simply concerned with establishing some measure of protection for people who are discriminated against because they worship God, by whatever name they know God. At present, such discrimination is not against the law.

The Human Rights Act 1998, which is due to come into force in October 2000, inter alia, guarantees the right to practise one's religion, whether alone or in a group, and to educate one's children in accordance with one's religion. It is nonsense to assert, as some do, that the Act goes only so far as to acknowledge such rights, and no further. A right that can be ignored and trampled over with impunity and without liability, where loss is caused as a result, has not been secured; and until it is secured, it is no right at all—it is a mockery of justice.

When I addressed the House previously on this issue in autumn last year, some noble Lords were quick to point out the possible difficulties in defining "religion", "worship" and "God". They raised philosophical issues as regards the status and rights of those who have a belief system but who do not believe in God. They also raised the spectre of obscure and possibly evil cults seeking to shelter behind the law that I propose: for example, those who practise Satanism. These issues have already been considered by learned judges in court, especially but not exclusively in the context of the law governing charities.

For example, in the case of Regina v Registrar General, ex parte Segerdal and Another, Lord Denning, may he rest in peace, concluded in 1970 that "a place of meeting for religious worship" denotes somewhere that is used principally as a place where people come together as a congregation or assembly to offer reverence to God. He stated that, It need not be the God which the Christians worship. It may be another God or an unknown God, but it must be reverence to a deity … Turning to the creed of the Church of Scientology. I must say that it seems to me to be more of a philosophy of the existence of a man or life, rather than a religion. Religious worship means reverence or veneration of God or of a Supreme Being. I do not find any such reverence or veneration in the creed to this church". These basic concepts and principles were then considered in greater detail in 1978 in the case In re South Place Ethical Society Barralet and Others v Attorney-General and Others. In his judgment, Mr Justice Dillon stated, inter alia: In a free country … it is natural that the court should desire not to discriminate between beliefs deeply and sincerely held, whether they are beliefs in a god or in the excellence of man or in ethical principles or in Platonism or some other scheme of philosophy. But I do not see that that warrants extending the meaning of the word 'religion' so as to embrace all other beliefs and philosophies. Religion, as I see it, is concerned with man's relations with God and ethics are concerned with man's relations with man. The two are not the same, and are not made the same by sincere inquiry into the question: what is God? If reason leads people not to accept Christianity or any known religion, but they do not believe in the excellence of qualities such as truth, beauty and love, or believe in the platonic concept of the ideal, their beliefs may be to them the equivalent of a religion, but viewed objectively they are not religion … It seems to me that two of the essential attributes of religion are faith and worship; faith in a god and worship of that god. In applying criteria such as these, our learned judges have already broadly established the differences between a religion and a philosophy, and between religion and ethics. I have not quoted from their judgments at great length, but, as I understand it, they have already established that where Buddhism and Hinduism are recognised for the purpose of English law as constituting religions, Scientology and freemasonry are not. The list is by no means exhaustive. But the point I wish to make is that our learned judges have already proved themselves well capable of ascertaining what constitutes "religion", "worship" and "God" with accuracy, clarity and consistency. I can see no reason why they should not remain able to do so in the future.

Accordingly, it is my view that theoretical difficulties in dealing with obscure sects or philosophies should not be used by the government of the day as a blocking device to justify denying a large number of the members of the mainstream religious groups in this country the protection under the law to which they are entitled. The courts can deal with such imagined difficulties if and when they actually arise. British citizens should be free to worship God by whatever name they call God without being penalised or discriminated against because of this.

Nor should it be a precondition to legislation that it will not be promulgated until the intensity or quantity of incidents involving religious discrimination have reached a certain degree or level. If such criteria were to be applied across the board it might then be argued that murder should not be regarded as a criminal offence because it occurs relatively infrequently as compared with the incidence of armed robbery. In both the Torah and the Qur'an it is stated that if even one person is killed unjustly then it is as if all mankind had been killed.

As far as Muslims are concerned, there is no doubt that they follow a major religion whose primary purpose is worship of the Supreme Being. There is no doubt that some Muslims have been and are being discriminated against because of their religion. There is no doubt that at present there is no law in the United Kingdom, with the exception of Northern Ireland, that protects against religious discrimination. The same applies to the followers of other major religions.

If a person is protected against discrimination because of the colour of his or her skin, why should that person not also be protected from being discriminated against because of the colour of his or her religious beliefs and practices? Those who implausibly argue that the law should only be skin deep should ask themselves what kind of justice there would be if our judges only considered the actus reus and not the mens rea.

Furthermore, as far as Muslims are concerned, the practices which tend to trigger the discrimination to which they are subjected in, for example, the employment sector are already well known and well documented. Apart from blind prejudice which requires no prior reason or justification for it to be expressed, Muslim women are sometimes discriminated against if they dress modestly and cover their hair. Muslim men are sometimes discriminated against if they wear a beard. Both Muslim men and women are sometimes discriminated against if they pray during their lunch or tea breaks, or if they fast during the holy month of Ramadan. These are not phenomena that are disputed. They are referred to almost daily in the media. They have been and are being researched in the groves of Academe. The Runnymede Trust has done significant work in this area. The research project being conducted at the University of Derby is a step in the right direction. While the experts debate and while the academics ponder, ordinary people suffer unnecessarily.

I find distasteful and obnoxious the argument that asserts that British Muslims who are discriminated against because of their religion should count themselves lucky if they only face ridicule and unfair dismissal in this country, when further east in the Balkans and the Caucasus the penalty is often rape, torture, imprisonment and even death. Whatever form such acts of discrimination on the grounds of religion take, whether extreme or not, there is no lawful justification to permit legally such acts to take place.

I also hasten to add that the proposed amendment in the Race Relations Act 1976 that I am seeking to introduce by means of the Race Relations (Religious Discrimination) Bill 2000 will afford protection not only to Muslims but also to the members of all the other major religions. In that sense it is a generous proposal, not a narrow one.

It is also a proposal that seeks to assist the government of the day to fulfil their obligations and duties under international law. The United Kingdom is a signatory to the European Convention on, Human Rights and has passed the Human Rights Act 1998 in order to incorporate the Convention rights into its domestic law. Once the Human Rights Act 1998 is in force, the government of the day will be under a duty, by virtue of Article 1 of the Convention, to secure, by passing secondary legislation where necessary, the rights guaranteed by the convention by providing an "effective remedy" in the English courts "without discrimination on any ground". If they fail to do so, the Government will then be in breach of Articles 1, 13, and 14 of the convention and, unless any such breach is remedied, will eventually and inevitably find themselves before the Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. As regards race discrimination, the Government have fulfilled their duty and are at present in the process of extending the ambit of the Race Relations Act 1976 further. As regards religious discrimination, however, the Government have up to now not yet fulfilled their duty. My proposal will help the Government to do so.

For example, the Human Rights Act 1998 will not protect a while Muslim who is refused employment or denied promotion or dismissed from employment because he or she prays at midday during the lunch break or wears a beard or hijab. What kind of justice is this? Is such a state of affairs really acceptable?

Is it right that the media should be prevented from ridiculing and attacking people because of the pigmentation of their skin but can with impunity promote inaccurate stereotypes of those who follow a particular religion and even present them as the enemy? Freedom of speech should not be demeaned by using it as a pretext for freedom of abuse, especially when such abuse can so easily incite others to indulge in more physical and frightening forms of attack.

Perhaps we can learn a lesson from more enlightened European countries which not only incorporated the provisions of ECHR into their domestic law years ago but have underpinned those rights by passing secondary legislation. For example, in Austria it is not legally permitted to discriminate against someone because of his or her religion. In that country politicians can be removed from office for doing so. The same is true of Germany, where there is already in place a mechanism whereby each of the major religions has recognised representatives who can present to the Government the concerns of their respective communities. The example and experience of those countries demonstrate that such laws are not difficult to formulate precisely or to implement equitably. That is why my Private Member's Bill is not, and does not need to be, lengthy.

In conclusion, I quote the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, in this House last autumn: The fundamental question raised, with great power, cogency and eloquence by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, is the problem of Islamophobia. It is the problem of how to give British Muslims the right to effective remedies for arbitrary discrimination and unequal treatment of the kind that people like myself have if we are discriminated against as Jews on racial grounds. I personally find it strange that I should have a remedy if I am discriminated against on racial grounds but, for example, the noble Lord. Lord Haskel, should not have a remedy if he is discriminated against on religious grounds. When, as an officer in the Army, I experienced discrimination, I could never tell whether the anti-Semitism was on racial or religious grounds. Other noble Lords have referred to the complications, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in his important speech. There surely has to be an effective legal remedy for the wrong of religious discrimination as well as the wrong of racial discrimination. I suggest that those who raise technical objections to the framing of legislation should concentrate on the need for a legal remedy for British Muslims that is as effective as that which exists for other minorities in this country. That is the pressing social need that must be addressed".—[Official Report, 28/10/99; col. 470.] I endorse the penetrating words of the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. The noble Lord is to speak in today's debate and I look forward to hearing his contribution.

I believe that the Private Member's Bill which I promote will go some way to address a pressing social need by providing an effective legal remedy for discrimination, whether it be racial or religious or a combination of both. I am sure that the courts will apply it judiciously. I commend the Race Relations (Religious Discrimination) Bill to the House and seek the support of noble Lords in carrying it through to the next stage.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Ahmed.)

7.24 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Bradford

My Lords, living and working in Bradford, I share many of the concerns voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and in principle I support his Bill. In so doing I pay tribute to the remarkable work that he has done over many years, not least in the north of England and Yorkshire, in promoting harmony and good relations between people of many religions. That is something for which the noble Lord has earned gratitude from a great many people.

There is much anecdotal evidence of religious discrimination, but legislation cannot be built on anecdotes. I believe that it is a wise step, which is much to be commended, that the University of Derby has been asked to carry out the research which it is now undertaking. I and many others look forward to reading its report, which it is hoped will emerge in the autumn of this year. If we are to have legislation, we must have firm grounds on which to base it. This is a very complex area and I do not believe that we shall make haste very quickly, but it is worth taking the care and worth doing.

I should like to make a contribution from the point of view of practical day-by-day experience in a city like Bradford. I believe that legislation is a desirable step, but it will not in itself remove religious discrimination. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, is perfectly well aware—better than I—in Pakistan there is a blasphemy law that is meant to protect people of all religions. Sadly, it is all too frequently abused to try to solve petty disputes in villages. There is a man called Ayub Masih who has been in prison for a very long time and has the death penalty hanging over him. It is not known when that will be resolved. In 1997 I and some friends visited Shanti Nagar, where some appalling riots had taken place. We were told that they had arisen from a trivial abuse of the blasphemy law. I know that the Government of Pakistan wish to change the law and that there are extremists who make life difficult. I do not cite that example to criticise another country but to point out that sometimes even a law with good intent can be greatly abused by those of little principle. Education and openness to change must go hand in hand with legislation; otherwise, we shall not make very real progress.

Nor is discrimination always inflicted by the majority on the minority. Just after the Lawrence report appeared, statements were made which suggested that racial discrimination was inflicted by the majority on the minority. That is not true. We need to keep in perspective that discrimination can be inflicted by anybody on anybody else for racial and religious motives.

I am also aware that there is low-level harassment (as it is termed by the chairman of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia of the Runnymede Trust), such as spitting and abuse of that kind, because of a person's religion. I regret to say that my wife and I have been spat at by people who are not Christians. I have received a report of a women who walked innocently through the streets and was told that she was a white whore. We want to remove discrimination everywhere and ensure that nobody on any grounds indulges in racial discrimination for whatever reason.

Yet another complication arises from what is sometimes referred to as positive discrimination. It is said—I do not for a moment support it because I do not have any evidence—that on occasions the police may decline to press charges against somebody because they fear a backlash from extremists in a religious group. We must also work against that kind of discrimination so that the law is applied without fear or favour.

If we are to promote legislation—I believe that there is reason for so doing—we should at the same time take practical measures to encourage better relationships between people of different religions and thus, step by step, remove the possibility that people will resort to religious discrimination.

Perhaps I may tell your Lordships about one or two simple steps in Bradford to that end. Shortly after I arrived there eight years ago, I received strong representations from Muslims who alleged racial and religious discrimination in employment. I invited people in industry and commerce to meet me. I certainly did not presume to tell them what to do, but many were able to offer examples of good practice. Along with legislation, I believe that we need to offer encouragement that comes from spelling out what good practice is and what is already being achieved.

In your Lordships' House a week or two ago, I was able to welcome the appointment of a Muslim adviser in prisons. That is a major step forward. When I became Bishop of Maidstone in 1987 and went to Maidstone Prison, it was the Anglican chaplain who sought to find an imam who would care for Muslim prisoners. There are good examples of people of one faith who strongly support others. If one has the misfortune, because of illness but for no other reason, to go to the Bradford Royal Infirmary or St Luke's Hospital, one will find that successive chaplains have built up a team of pastoral visitors some 60 or 70 strong which comprises Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and Christians.

If we are to have legislation, we must have good practice which tries to prevent such discrimination alongside the legislation which punishes the discrimination. As I shall say one or two words which may be regarded as being critical of the Bradford Metropolitan District. Education Authority, perhaps I may say that the Bradford Metropolitan District Council has a prayer room in the city hall which is open to people of all faiths. If noble Lords believe that that is an excuse for providing it for Muslims, were the Bradford Metropolitan District Council to have the misfortune of having me as an employee, I should be there at midday every day to say my prayers as a Christian. I believe that that is a small but enlightened step that encourages people of different faiths and tries to prevent discrimination.

I mentioned education because it cannot be removed from the scene. Problems with education fuel religious discrimination in a city such as Bradford. With regard to the 1999 GCSE results where live or more A to C grades were achieved, the national average was 46.1 per cent. In Bradford the Figures were: whites, 34 per cent; Pakistanis, 21.8 per cent; Pakistani males, 16.7 per cent; females, 27.8 per cent; white males, 29.9 per cent; females, 38.1 per cent. Those are simply the statistics. However, the tension and suspicion surrounding education and the feeling that one has under-achieved, that one is of no use, and so on, are in my view a major contributor to unease between people of different faiths and different races. The sooner we are able to address that issue so that youngsters who come from Muslim backgrounds can feel that they achieve and are on a level playing field, the better it will be, and we shall remove yet another reason for religious discrimination.

I make a plea, too, that our policymakers should learn to distinguish between religion and culture. In my view, much religious discrimination comes from ignorance. There is a big difference between what is Islam and what may be Pakistani or Kashmiri culture. Long visits to Pakistan by schoolchildren are culture. That has nothing directly to do with Islam. Arranged marriages with consent are entirely consistent with Islam; forced marriages are contrary to Islam. I believe that we should be very careful when those who are not Muslims refer glibly and easily to the marriage practices of those who are Muslims. We can easily get it wrong and cause a great deal of offence.

Halal meat is Islam; curry is culture, as is fish and chips. Noble Lords may believe that that is a trivial remark, but I am told that in the schools in Bradford most of the Muslim children go for fish and chips and most of the white children go for curry It is a rather trivial matter but when one talks about another faith it is important to know what one is talking about. Much of the abuse that causes offence comes out of ignorance.

The mosque culture and the school culture need to be helped to come together. At the moment they pull away from each other. Children learn by rote, perhaps from an imam who speaks little or no English, and then go into an entirely different culture in a school. If we can begin to address that, we shall begin to remove some of the causes of religious discrimination.

I hope that noble Lords do not feel that I have deviated too much. I want to support the idea of legislation. However, I want to make the point firmly that I fear that that in itself will achieve very little unless we address the underlying causes. When we do that and follow the example of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, over many years, we really shall make progress and perhaps the legislation will be little used.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, before the right reverend Prelate sits down, he spoke early on in his speech of the need either for firm evidence or for further evidence. There is a difference. It did not come over entirely clearly. If the right reverend Prelate remembers, he may wish to clarify that point, particularly as he then went on to discuss matters in relation to the work of the University of Derby. I believe that it would also be helpful for Hansard to be clear regarding what the right reverend Prelate said.

The Lord Bishop of Bradford

My Lords, I apologise for my bad articulation. I meant to say "firm" because anecdote is fine, but legislation can be built on firm evidence.

7.36 p.m.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, I support the Bill of my noble friend Lord Ahmed, not only for the reasons that he gives and the evidence of discrimination, of which I have also seen unjust and harrowing examples as chair of Camden's racial equality council, but also for another set of reasons. I shall describe them briefly.

They are based on the fact that, quite apart from the essential human rights aspect of discrimination, discrimination is a market failure. To deny people an equal opportunity for a job, a promotion, a contract or an education is to lose out on talent. It is not only the individual who suffers a disadvantage; so do the employer, the contractor and society as a whole.

Moreover, there could be a particularly disadvantageous consequence of discrimination on religious grounds in the UK. As we have heard, that includes substantially discrimination against our Muslim fellow citizens, although it is not limited to them. That is because, while Islam is a minority religion here, in the global context in which we live and trade it is a majority religion. Some of the ancient world religions help to form the cultures of the newer economies. In the United Kingdom we are fortunate to have many personal and commercial links with those economies because of our past history of immigration and emigration. That history was not without pain, even atrocity. However, over succeeding generations it has proved a resource and an opportunity—an opportunity to be at home in and thrive in a global world.

No doubt that was one of the reasons why the Foreign Office made a very interesting video entitled "Islam in Britain" for distribution abroad. It shows positively, but not over-rosily, the lives of British Muslims. It shows my noble friend Lord Ahmed being introduced into your Lordships' House, which is a very positive sight. That part of the film was quite rosy too, but that was because of the colour of the film. The film shows, above all, that the UK can have strong ties outside its location on the edge of western Europe.

I suggest that those links would be much enhanced if those who saw the video overseas and who invest in and trade with the UK also knew that we mean what we say when we talk about being a multi-cultural society by outlawing discrimination on the grounds of religion. The UK would not be unusual in doing that; far from it. We would be joining many other multicultural societies: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and most of our fellow members of the European Union, of which my noble friend Lord Ahmed mentioned two, in making protection against religious discrimination part of the legal or constitutional framework. Our own Human Rights Act provides a first basis of protection in respect of the rights in the Act. We would be signalling that we had a modern and inclusive idea of human rights, which grappled with the real issues faced by our own citizens. For the reasons I have outlined, that addition would have a global resonance in our relations with many of our allies and natural markets.

Taking further the proposal of my noble friend, I express the hope that there could be included in the text of the Bill words to cover those of us whose ethics do not derive from revealed religion. That is the intention of the words "or belief" added after the word "religion" in the relevant provisions of the various international human rights instruments which the UK has ratified and we should try to meet the point.

Finally, I warmly commend the Bill to your Lordships. It would be a great step forward to enact it.

7.42 p.m.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, I rise in support of my noble friend Lord Ahmed. I am grateful to my noble friend for his latest efforts and for his Private Member's Bill, which seeks to extend the ambit of the Race Relations Act 1976 to include discrimination on grounds of religion. I wholeheartedly agree with him that the move is long overdue and an essential step towards the emergence of a truly pluralistic, tolerant and just society in today's Britain.

The final justification for any law, as noted by Albert Camus, is the good it does or fails to do to the society of a given place and time. Today's Britain desperately needs a law to protect and redress religious discrimination so that a vast number of its citizens can talk of genuine tolerance and justice.

The amendment suggested by my noble friend would not only reflect the concerns and issues we face today but also greatly contribute towards combating one of the most unacceptable social ills threatening society; that of religious discrimination and intolerance. Like all forms of discrimination, religious discrimination has its pecking order, the most vulnerable being women and children. I referred to that at length when I addressed your Lordships' House last October.

There are too many cases up and down the country of women who have been physically and verbally abused and threatened because of their faith, in addition to suffering discrimination in the field of employment, to which I shall return shortly. Anecdotal or not, the experience of Islamophobia, for instance, is an ugly reality that dangerously wounds, scars and alienates members of the Muslim community. It is the oxygen that fuels both alienation and extremism and cannot be allowed to tarnish and disfigure our society.

I agree with the wise contribution of the right reverend Prelate. However, comparison with other countries such as Pakistan, with the entirely different aspirations, practices and expectations of its citizens, is not appropriate within this context. To my best belief there are no race and sex discrimination laws in place. There may be very good examples in other places. I wholeheartedly agree with the contribution of the right reverend Prelate as regards the impact on education.

That is not only in place in Bradford. I have been talking about Tower Hamlets all afternoon, and this is a matter which readily comes to mind. The continuous unacceptable level of educational achievement remains abysmal and must be addressed. I shall return to that many times in your Lordships' House.

I return to the subject at hand. Lack of recognition of the fundamental role of religion in the lives of people, particularly those from the ethnic minority communities, has had a profound impact, whether or not we recognise it. Over the years it has meant the bypassing of faith communities in securing resource allocation. The perception and understanding of society purely on race categorisation has meant the marginalisation and impoverishment of large sections of the community. For instance, resource allocation for blacks or Asians normally totally bypasses the Muslim community, which is a multi-racial and multiethnic community with distinct needs.

I draw the attention of your Lordships to a report published today by the Cabinet Office, entitled Minority Ethnic Issues in Social Exclusion and Neighbourhood Renewal, which totally misses the point on faith-based regeneration. Had this law been in place, that would not be the case. Without the proposed amendment, the legal situation can best be described as necessary but not sufficient. In order that the basic objectives in applying race laws are achieved, laws against religious discrimination must be introduced, and must be inevitable.

Many people feel that they are discriminated against in employment and service delivery because their religious background and practices are not recognised or are simply ignored. In many public sector organisations, people are discouraged from putting their religious beliefs into practice. They are prevented, for example, from taking leave during festivals and on other important religious days. I am not referring to midday prayers, which have been covered adequately.

The present situation also implies lack of recognition and respect. People from many faiths, including members of the Muslim communities, feel their identity is not recognised by law. The situation has been made even worse by the reluctance to include religion in the forthcoming census. During times in which almost all decisions are numerically led—having been a local government deputy leader for nine years, I should know—lack of basic statistics will put many faith communities at a great disadvantage as regards resource allocation. The lack of monitoring based on one's religious affiliation has had the effect of making faith communities invisible in today's Britain. That cannot be just or right.

The cost of tolerating an environment in which faith communities feel unprotected and vulnerable cannot be measured in terms of anguish, pain, the deep sense of isolation and the resultant marginalisation.

The suggested amendment to the law would be a major leap in engaging the minority community, as well as ensuring that the Britain of today and tomorrow is a society which genuinely believes in and is guided by the high principle of respecting all people regardless of their background, gender, ethnicity and religion.

The proposed legislation is particularly important also because of its timing. We are at the moment in one of the country's best epochs in terms of having a government, a Prime Minister and a Home Secretary totally committed to confronting the forces of discrimination and prejudice. Not having a law against religious discrimination actually goes against all the basic principles of this Government, who have shown beyond all doubt a commitment towards crating a society that is free and tolerant for all our citizens. If they fail to introduce both the relevant religious discrimination legislation and the religious question in the 2001 national census, it will have a major impact on their credibility with a significant and important part of our community.

"The law", said Martin Luther King—himself a man of great faith—"does not change the heart. But it does restrain the heartless". It signals to everyone certain standards and values and it states basic terms of debate. In that way, it shapes, as it gives expression to, moral opinions and outlooks.

The legal change for which my noble friend is calling is essential to help crystallise a new climate of opinion which is already present and to bring religion into the terms of debate of what kind of society we want to have in this country. Until and unless such changes have been introduced, Britain cannot claim to be an inclusive and a fair society.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing this Bill. He was kind enough to refer to some remarks that I made in a previous debate that he initiated on 28th October 1999, and I shall not repeat what I then said. I shall simply summarise my position by indicating that I support the aims of this Bill. I believe that the absence of an effective remedy for the injustice of treating someone less favourably than another on the grounds of their religious beliefs or political opinion is a source of real injustice and that there should be an effective remedy.

I agree also that international human rights law requires the introduction of legislation. The ratification by the United Kingdom, by the present Government, of the ILO Discrimination in Employment Convention No. 111, which I much welcome, is one further indication of the need to do so.

I listened carefully to the important speech made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford and found his reference to the complexities of the situation and his illustrations very telling. On only one matter did I disagree with him; that is, the suggestion that one needed what he called "firm evidence" of the problem before legislating. There is firm evidence that the British Muslim community—a very large community—feels a real sense of injustice, and we know that the Race Relations Act is only able to tackle the problem indirectly. It cannot tackle the problem directly because Muslims are not an ethnic group whereas, for example, Jews—of which I am one—are recognised to be an ethnic group. The Act can only tackle the problem if there is an indirect impact upon Muslims of an ethnic nature. The Human Rights Act, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, pointed out, can only tackle the problem in a limited way because the nondiscrimination guarantee in Article 14 is parasitic on the rest of the convention, which does not cover employment.

So I have no doubt about the need for legislation. I have no doubt about the aims of this measure. If the proposition were put before the House that the Bill should be given a Second Reading, I would certainly be in favour of it. But the rest of my remarks are designed to urge the promoters of the Bill to think more carefully about some of the underlying problems.

I spent more than two years of my life working on the Race Relations Act and the Sex Discrimination Act as special adviser in the Home Office to my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I can say therefore that I have real personal experience of the kinds of issue that need to be tackled. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, will forgive me for saying that, even if the right bit of the Race Relations Act was referred to in his one clause Bill, which it is not—it is a boring and pedantic point—we cannot simply amend the Race Relations Act 1976 in the way suggested. I am sure he will be the first to recognise that.

Perhaps I may indicate the problems and make it clear that I am not suggesting that they are not capable of solution. They have been tackled in Northern Ireland in that context, and tackled recently and imaginatively in the Irish Republic, to take only two examples. Such legislation illustrates that the problems are not insoluble. But they are real and I want to raise them now, without wishing in any way to encourage the Minister who will undoubtedly latch on to what I am saying as evidence of the need for further time to consider all these problems, and rightly so.

The first problem is that to discriminate against someone because of their religious belief is not as simple and straightforward as to discriminate against someone because of their colour, race, ethnic origin, sex or gender. To practise racial or sex discrimination is to discriminate against someone for something they cannot control. It is because of their descent, their birth, their genetic inheritance. It is an affront to their common humanity. To discriminate against someone because of their religious belief or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, pointed out, their political opinion—both forbidden forms of discrimination in international law and in Northern Ireland—is not to discriminate against them because of their common humanity; it is to discriminate against them because of their belief system, because of their faith.

It is as unfair to discriminate against somebody because they have no faith as it is to discriminate against somebody because they have faith. In spite of what the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said in relation to his definition of religion—I declare a professional interest in that I advised the Church of Scientology about its application for charitable status in the past—Buddhists, who do not belong to a theistic religion, would regard their religion as a real religion, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, would himself. The English cases to which he referred as being the golden thread in this area, I am sorry to say, are a tangled web of inconsistent principles in which English judges have done their best to fit in recognition of Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, with the theistic religions of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and so forth.

Therefore, although I do not feel it is necessary to define religion in the Bill any more than the Human Rights Act does, one must recognise that if a Bill of this nature were enacted it would undoubtedly create problems that would have to be tackled in relation to what is meant by religion and religious belief. I share the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, that it would be wrong to cover only religious belief and not, for example, political opinion. That would clearly be inconsistent with our international obligations.

That is the first real problem that needs to be tackled. The second problem is whether it is sensible to amend the Race Relations Act in the way that this Bill does, or whether there should be a separate Bill because of the special problems in relation to religious discrimination. Or, as I would prefer, perhaps there should be comprehensive legislation which covered equal treatment without discrimination on any ground; for example, age, disability, sexual orientation as well as religious belief and political opinion.

I believe that all that is consistent with legislation in other countries. Would it not be sensible, as I have been urging in this House for some time, to have a radical overhaul of our often inconsistent, incomprehensible mess of equality legislation and to have a single effective equality code that included religion? I would argue that that is a difficult ambition to achieve but one that would be worth the attempt.

The next problem is whether the grounds should be confined, as in this Bill, to religion or whether non-theistic religions and political beliefs should be covered? Should such legislation be confined to employment, as was originally the case in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, or, as I would argue, should it also cover goods, services and facilities? That is a policy choice that needs to be considered. It is easier to get a Bill through Parliament if it is narrowly confined to employment, but is that sensible?

Should such a Bill cover indirect discrimination as well as direct discrimination? Much more difficult problems arise if it were to cover both. I would argue that it should, but the implications would need to be thought through. What about the exceptions? The exceptions in the Race Relations Act can be pretty narrow because there are few situations in which a person's colour or race is relevant to a job or the provision of a service. In regard to religion, as the legislation in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic shows, one needs wider exceptions where a person's faith, or lack of it, is relevant to a particular employment or occupation, or to the provision of a particular service, such as separate voluntary religious schools and employment in those schools. Again, defining the exceptions where religion, or the absence of religion, is relevant needs to be worked out.

All of those problems are capable of solution. I suggest that they are better solved not by amending the Race Relations Act, not even by having a separate religious discrimination Bill, but by having, as the United States and Canada have, a comprehensive code that is user-friendly, intelligible and capable of being enforced. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that legislation is not a panacea. It seems to me to be a necessary but not a sufficient condition, and all the other matters to which he and other noble Lords have drawn attention need to be addressed as well.

To sum up, I strongly support the aims of the legislation. I believe that much more work will need to be carried out, not in obtaining evidence of the problem, but in persuading the Government to find the political will to tackle the defects in our existing equality legislation and to bring forward comprehensive legislation, of which this could be an important part. I believe that that aspiration will not be accomplished this side of the general election, but I say, respectfully, that I hope that it will find its way into the manifestos of the main parties. It will certainly be in the manifesto of my party, as it has been in the past.

8.3 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for bringing this Bill before us and giving us another opportunity to consider the subject. First, I agree that religious discrimination is fundamentally wrong. We are all on the side of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, in relation to the morals and the principle behind his Bill.

We also recognise the dangerous force of religious prejudice. Throughout history there are examples, and today there are far too many examples, of the most hideous wars between different religions that have scarred our planet. Some of the most vicious wars have been not between different religions but between different denominations within a religion. The Troubles—I believe that is the technical term—in Northern Ireland are given that character, although, as in so many other modern cases, the dispute is not about any point of religion at all. It is a case of religion being used as an expression of difference, rather than there being a religious dispute in the theological sense.

At different times and in different circumstances each religion and each denomination within the main religions has been in a superior position and has pressed its views on others. In Great Britain those powerful forces are at work in lesser ways than war, but nevertheless in damaging ways. On a global scale, I believe that we can claim to have a good record, but that does not mean that there is no discrimination or that we can ignore it.

Like the Minister, I come from Leicester, which is a city that in my lifetime has changed its religious composition along with its racial composition, as have other places, including the city where the right reverend Prelate has his cathedral. The reason why most people from overseas came to live here was extreme religious discrimination or religious persecution in other countries. We can be proud of the fact that they have found a haven here, but not so proud of the discrimination that takes place here.

There is also no doubt that Leicester, like our country, has benefited from the vitality and hard work of many who have come to live in this country. Their arrival has perhaps led to curry being accepted as our national dish. Of course, tea from the same sub-continent has long been our principal national drink.

Given the age-old nature and the divisive force of religious divisions, I believe it would be rash to suggest that we can abolish such matters by legislation. Of course, the Bill does not seek to do that; it seeks to protect people against the effects. It is true, as the right reverend Prelate said, that education and positive actions must go with any legislation.

Returning to the law, the problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has made clear, is to draft a satisfactory law that will provide a useful weapon against discrimination. It is partly a matter of defining religion itself, but also of deciding what is unacceptable. After all, religions themselves discriminate. Religious schools, as the noble Lord, said, hire teachers of the appropriate faith to teach their children. One cannot take a full part in a Church of England communion service or a Roman Catholic mass unless one has made a proper commitment to the appropriate body. I recall some cases relating to the rates payable on churches, which are defined as places of public worship, that hinged on such matters as whether everybody could play a full part in the services.

It is a difficult area. It is true that, although some people convert from one religion to another or from one denomination to another within a certain religion, most of us follow the religion of our forefathers. That means that in most cases religion comes with our race and nationality. For that reason, some religious groups can be regarded also as ethnic groups, and so find themselves covered by the Race Relations Act, which—I hope I shall not be misunderstood in saying this—in some respects is unfortunate, because it leaves others out in the cold, simply because their religion is not so tightly tied to the racial distinction.

There are also the problems as regards how fine the distinction should go; in other words, should it cover discrimination between denominations like Sunni and Shi'a Moslems or between Roman Catholics, Baptists and those in the Church of England? There is also the difficulty that arises because of certain groups or sects that call themselves a religion. Indeed, there are some well-known examples in that respect and some of those groups are not what most of us would call "religious".

The bottom line is the fact that religious discrimination is wrong and we certainly deplore it. But we must find a law that will work and one which will cover the matters that are the primary source of concern. Obviously, jobs and the provision of services, and so on, are first in the queue, if I may put it that way, but some of the most offensive and also the most damaging examples of discrimination are to be found in the form of words used about Muslims, in particular, in press reports. Indeed, such wording implies, and often more or less says, that all Muslims are fanatics who are bent upon destroying the rest of us. That seems to me to be exceptionally damaging and yet, in some respects, it is the most difficult to deal with from the legal point of view. It is also an absolutely false and an entirely wrong impression to give of Muslims.

Once again, we are grateful to the noble Lord for bringing this important issue to our attention. I understand that progress is being made in addressing the problems; indeed, we await the report from the University of Derby, which will no doubt represent further progress. However, much more work needs to be done. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, with his great experience of such matters, set out the arguments in that respect in a much more precise way than I can. However, the fact that the Bill has been placed before us in this way has permitted us to debate the issues and helped to push forward that necessary work. We are grateful to the noble Lord.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, perhaps I may, first, join in the congratulations expressed to my noble friend Lord Ahmed on the manner in which he moved the Second Reading of his Private Member's Bill. Indeed, it displayed all his moderation, his good sense and his commitment to this particular cause. I was delighted that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford saw fit to pay such a proper tribute to my noble friend for what he has done in the past and for what he is doing at present. I should like to echo those sentiments from the Front Bench.

I should also like to make some mention of all the speakers who have taken part in the debate, but I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not do so. I must mention the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, in particular. His reputation in this field goes way before him. He is wary that, in speaking from the Front Bench, I shall latch on to the line of his arguments; indeed, if he will forgive me for saying so, it is extremely hard whenever one is debating such matters not to latch on, either subtly or not so subtly, to the arguments that the noble Lord has deployed with such expertise and skill over many years. I shall do my best not to latch on to the noble Lord's arguments tonight, except perhaps the more general one.

The fact that my speech from the Front Bench will not be very long does not mean that the Government believe that this is a minor matter. We believe that religious discrimination in our country is a serious and important issue and one which is worthy of careful and detailed consideration before deciding on the best course of action.

This country obviously has a strong Christian history, but it is also a country that enjoys the benefits of a broad and diverse religious landscape. We live in a multi-cultural society and we are infinitely the better for it. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Cope, mention Leicester from which we both hail in one way or another. If anyone would like any proof that we are infinitely the better for our multi-cultural society, he or she should spend a few days in Leicester, or even in London, in order to see the improvement that our new society has made.

However, we shall not become a successful multicultural society until we value the contribution made by each and every one of our diverse communities; take pride in our diversity and celebrate it—and I mean "celebrate it"—to the world; and until people from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds can live and work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, while retaining their distinctive identities. Until then, we shall not have the successful multi-cultural society to which everyone in this House is committed.

The Government are determined to take a strong lead in eliminating all forms of discrimination and intolerance. I do not believe that it is going too far to say that most reasonably-minded people would say that this Government's commitment to those causes has been pretty well demonstrated in the first three years of their time in office.

The Government are especially alive to the concerns expressed about religious discrimination and the lack of effective action to tackle it. In particular, we heard most movingly about the concerns of the British Muslim community on the issue. Moreover, the Church of England, in the form of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford in our previous debate, has also expressed its commitment to exploring the serious and complex concerns raised by the question of religious discrimination. That was also reflected in the contribution made this evening by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford.

There is an anomaly in the law at present—it would be foolish to deny it—whereby some faith groups are protected, while others are not. But as a government we need to be absolutely clear about the nature of the problem before we can tackle it. We do not yet know to what extent other minority faith communities suffer from discrimination, and we do not fully understand the complex relationship between racial and religious identity and prejudice. We do not yet know what are the most effective methods of tackling religious discrimination.

That is why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary commissioned the first significant empirical research into religious discrimination in the United Kingdom by way of a contract with the University of Derby. This is an important initiative. The research will take place over a period of 18 months. As noble Lords may well know, an interim report was published earlier this year. The final report is due to be published in the autumn of this year. The Government, along with noble Lords in this House, look forward in anticipation to reading that important document. The aim of the research is clear: to assess the scale and nature of religious discrimination in England and Wales. When the report is published, we shall take account of its findings and the research when considering the range of responses available to us in tackling such discrimination.

I shall outline briefly the background to the research. Its purpose is fourfold: first, to assess the evidence of religious discrimination, both actual and perceived; secondly, to describe the patterns shown by evidence of this discrimination—its overall scale, its main victims, its main perpetrators and the main ways in which the discrimination manifests itself; thirdly, to indicate the extent to which religious discrimination overlaps with racial discrimination; and, fourthly, but not as a last word on the subject, to identify the range of policy options available for dealing with such discrimination.

I turn now to the census mentioned by my noble friend Lady Uddin. One of the key messages that we have heard from minority faith communities was that they felt, as it were, invisible when it came to monitoring and statistics. The ethnic origin question, which was introduced in the last census in 1991, brought us a long way forward in addressing the needs of ethnic minorities but did nothing to help to identify the needs of minority faith communities. The census as it currently stands offers no detailed information about religious affiliation in relation to the Moslem, Sikh, Jewish and other faith communities.

The Census 2001 White Paper proposed, interestingly enough for the first time since 1851, to include a question on religion in relation to England and Wales. The Bill introduced in this House by the noble. Lord, Lord Weatherill, is due to get its Second Reacting in another place in two days' time on 9th June. Subject to parliamentary approval, we shall finally have reliable data on our faith communities, which will help us to identify and address their needs. One very much hopes that all in another place will ensure that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, moves forward.

There is no quick-fix solution to the issue of religious discrimination. It would not be reasonable to commit to amending existing legislation without having a clear understanding of the mischief that we intend to address and without making sure that we address it. The results of the research will provide an important evidential basis on which to make decisions about what the appropriate response should be.

The Human Rights Act, which has been mentioned, comes into force on 2nd October. It is expected to provide relief in cases of alleged religious discrimination involving the treatment of individuals by public bodies. We shall also take account of the implications of the framework directive in the area of employment under Article 13 of the EC Treaty of Amsterdam.

This is an important issue. We want to reassure the House that we take it seriously. However, I do not think that I can do better than to paraphrase the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford: if we are to have legislation, we need to be sure about it. In other words, we need to be sure that we are getting it right.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I hope that he will clarify a point about the University of Derby study. Will that include a policy evaluation of the way in which legislation in comparable democratic societies has been framed and operates in practice? I have in mind particularly the two recent Acts enacted in the Republic of Ireland and the legislation in, for example, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Northern Ireland. Will the study consider that in the way that the Street report did back in 1967, which Sir Geoffrey Howe, as he then was, Geoffrey Bindman and the late Professor Harry Street undertook? They looked at the pattern of legislation in North America, and that was a great help. Will the University of Derby study take that into account, or should it be left to separate initiatives? I have in mind, for example, Professor Hepple's ongoing study into that matter at the moment. I hope that the noble Lord will clarify that matter.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for asking that important question. I am told that the interim report which was published earlier this year, which I have not had the advantage of reading—I would not be at all surprised to hear that the noble Lord has read it—included some references to exactly the points that the noble Lord makes. As we speak, it is not intended that the final report will deal with the matters that he mentions. However, I assure the noble Lord that I shall relate his comments to the Home Office to ensure that when decisions are taken they are taken on the basis of, as it were, comparative studies of what happens elsewhere.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, this has been a helpful debate. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in it. I am grateful for the support I have received from all sides of the House. I am particularly grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford for having travelled from Liverpool, where he was attending a conference, to speak in the debate.

I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for his advice, which I take note of. I have taken note of all the advice that has been given. I request the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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