HL Deb 07 March 2000 vol 610 cc906-8

3.4 p.m.

Lord Janner of Braunstone asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will extend race relations legislation so as to outlaw discrimination on grounds of religion.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, the Government fully recognise the concerns of minority faith communities which feel that they suffer religious discrimination and the calls for that to be made subject to the law. That is why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary took the positive step of commissioning research into this difficult and sensitive area. We have already published an interim report and expect the full findings of the research to be ready for publication in the autumn. They will help to develop the Government's approach to the issue.

Lord Janner

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but does he accept that the Race Relations Act (rightly, I believe) bans discrimination against Jewish people such as myself, against Sikhs and against Rastafarians, but does not provide the same protection to Muslims, Hindus and the majority of people in this country who are Christians? Surely that distinction is outrageous, illogical and wrong. Will Her Majesty's Government take appropriate steps to remedy what is a disgraceful anomaly?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I fully accept that it is an anomaly. It is for that reason that the Government embarked on the process of conducting research in this area. I accept also that 2 million Muslims feel discriminated against by the operation of the law. It is an anomaly that crept in and one which we intend to tackle. That will be one of the fruits of the research when it is finally published in October. We shall have to look fully at the whole issue at that time.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, the Minister's reply was helpful. How will the Government deal with breaches of the Human Rights Act 1998 now that it incorporates the convention rights set out in Articles 9, 13 and 14, which prohibit discrimination of any kind, particularly religious discrimination?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Human Rights Act will be helpful in this area of the law. That does not come into being until 2nd October this year. It will be a major step; it is a valuable initiative. I take the view that it will help to establish a new culture of rights and responsibilities within the UK law. It is something of which our Government are particularly proud. It will help and that, allied with the way we are reviewing discrimination legislation with regard to religion, will help to change the whole attitude in that field of policy.

Lord Elton

My Lords, has the Minister come across the surprising difficulty in the middle of all this, which is the near impossibility of defining what a religion is? As his department has not managed to define religion in the past 15 years, will he concentrate on preventing discrimination against known religious faiths rather than religious grounds as a concept?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an interesting part of the debate. I share with him the difficulties of defining exactly what religion is. We feel we understand it when confronted with it, but are never sure when someone comes up with another religion. It is a problem. It is something we shall need to consider when the research is published and no doubt we shall have to struggle to provide a definition. Other countries have encountered the same problems. I know that Germany's case law led that country into difficulties. We perhaps need to learn from the experience of our European Union partners in this matter.

Lord Ahmed

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree with me that the Islamophobia Commission report and the Islamic Human Rights Commission reports prove that there is religious discrimination against Muslims? Why therefore is it necessary to conduct further research before the Government introduce religious discrimination laws?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, both reports wisely referred to by my noble friend Lord Ahmed provide us with valuable insights. However, I do not think that they can be seen as the final chapter in the story: rather, they tell us in what direction we need to be heading. For that reason among other reasons, the fruits of such research will prove to be of great value when we consider how we might shape legislation in the future. Because of the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, legislation in this field needs to be carefully thought through in order that we get it right and do not produce further anomalies.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that our debates on the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill drew out exactly the point referred to by my noble friend Lord Elton? All of us condemn discrimination on the grounds of religion—whatever that may be. However, the present difficulty is that the religions mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Janner—that of the Sikhs and, indeed, his own religion—combine with race and nationality. However, other religions do not combine in that way. Does the noble Lord agree that the difficulty lies in trying to define, in legal terms, what exactly it is that we are trying to make illegal? Drawing up the law is the difficult part of this exercise and that is where the University of Derby may be of help.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I, too, hope that the University of Derby will be helpful in these matters. That research, which will have been conducted over a period of 18 months, will give us some valuable insights. I am grateful to the noble Lord for sharing with us his understanding and appreciation of the problem. It is an issue upon which a final conclusion is long overdue.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that, in framing such legislation, the Government will consult the Christian Churches and the other faiths, as well as bodies such as the Churches' Commission for Inter-Faith Relations? Furthermore, will the Government be sensitive to the need, which I certainly recognise in my own multiracial diocese of Wakefield, to set that legislation in the context of a wider process of education and good practice?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am happy to provide the right reverend Prelate the assurance that he seeks. It is important that we continue to consult—as we have already done—throughout the period of research with all the faiths involved in this issue. It is important that, when undertaking such research, we recognise the rich diversity of faiths represented in England and Wales. I am told that we have perhaps the most diverse range of religious communities. For that reason, I believe that we must tread carefully as we progress towards framing legislation. That is an issue for the future.