§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Lord Ahmed rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to extend to the rest of the United Kingdom legislation which applies in Northern Ireland against religious discrimination.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have put down their names at such short notice to speak on this Unstarred Question. This debate is overdue, as there are many faith communities 455 in Britain who feel that they are second-class citizens because the law does not protect them in England, Scotland and Wales. While the enactment of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Acts 1976 and 1989 is praiseworthy in itself, it has created an embarrassing anomaly, with religious discrimination in the employment sphere being unlawful in only one part of the United Kingdom. I am aware that there are complications in relation to the Northern Ireland legislation. However, I am using that as a basis for my debate tonight.
§ In an historic decision, an industrial tribunal in Sheffield—Precision Services Ltd, Rotherham—decided in 1991 that direct discrimination against Muslims on religious grounds is outside the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976 because, in the tribunal's view, Muslims were neither an ethnic nor a racial group to be covered by the Act.
§ The three pieces of legislation including the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 currently deal with discrimination on the grounds of sex, disability, racial discrimination, racial abuse and racial harassment, which, regrettalbly, are a fact of life for many citizens.
§ Incitement to racial hatred is a criminal offence, but if the harassment, abuse or incitement is based not on colour, race, nationality, ethnic or national origin but on religion there is no law and no protection, as last year's High Court decision regarding Merton Council's attempt to secure legal protection for Muslims from certain members of the British National Party has demonstrated. It is clear that at present a religiously motivated attack is not regarded by the law as an aggravated offence. There is in fact no "legal uncertainty" as to whether the law regards Muslims, who come in all colours and from all ethnic backgrounds, as a racial group. It does not and could not.
§ The House of Lords made a decision, which I welcome, that Jews and Sikhs constitute a racial group and are entitled to protection under the Race Relations Act. They can be defined by their ethnic as well as their religious identity. So a black Jew from Ethiopia, a white Jew from Russia and a brown Jew from Lebanon are all treated as belonging to the same ethnic race for the purposes of English law, whereas black, white and brown Muslims from exactly the same countries are not.
§ Evidence published by the Runnymede Trust in its report Islamophobia—a challenge for us all clearly shows that the law is inadequate to secure the objective of an inclusive and pluralist society. Your Lordships may be aware that the Commission for Racial Equality and the Muslim Council of Britain have been calling for a change in the law in respect of discrimination on the grounds of religion and incitement to religious hatred.456
The previous Home Secretary, Michael Howard, argued that,
there is little evidence of discrimination against individuals on religious rather than racial grounds, but I can assure you that the Home Office remains ready to look at any evidence".
I hope that the Home Office will have examined the evidence which is set out clearly in the Runnymede Trust's report and also representations made by the Commission for Racial Equality, the MCB and various faith communities and organisations.
Last year Mr. John Austin MP introduced a Private Member's Bill in another place to make religious discrimination unlawful in employment and in the provision of goods, facilities and services, and to make provision for appropriate enforcement. The Bill also proposed new offences related to incitement to religious hatred. Unfortunately, because of lack of time the Bill was not pursued. In his speech in March 1998 he said:
Hatred of Islam has existed in western cultures for several centuries, but it has become more explicit, extreme and dangerous. It is an ingredient of all sections of our media, which means that many Muslims are frequently excluded from the economic, social and public life of the nation".—[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/98; col. 860.]
§ According to the Asian Times this week, another mosque was burned down in Portsmouth by an arson attack last week. A few weeks ago I met a young, Asian barrister in Bradford who is unable to get a pupilage or training contract because of his beard. There are scores of people who have difficulty in obtaining permission from their employers to celebrate religious festivals like Eid and Diwali. There are dozens of women who have been discriminated against because of the dress they wear.
§ There is no protection from or deterrent against religious discrimination under domestic English law. And yet religious discrimination, whether blatant or disguised, gross or subtle, is experienced, as with racial and sexual discrimination, by many people, not only by Muslims but also by followers of other faiths.
§ I accept that simply passing a law against any form of ignorance does not in itself dispel such ignorance, although it may well eventually help to have that effect. Ignorance can only be defeated by wisdom. Arrogance can only be repulsed by humility. Covering up the truth can only be overwhelmed by making the truth clearly apparent. Tyranny can only be conquered by justice. I accept that there will be those who will never understand the feelings of their victims. Therefore the arguments for legislation outlawing religious discrimination are broadly the same as those for legislation outlawing racial discrimination. First, a religious anti-discrimination law would be a powerful symbol of public policy and would convey the important message that religious identities are valued and respected throughout society. It would acknowledge that Britain is now a multi-cultural and multi-religious society.
§ Secondly, there must be consistency. Just as we have in Northern Ireland the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Acts, we should also have protection for the citizens living in mainland Britain. I accept that 457 defining "religion" is difficult, but difficulties are no argument for not acting in the interest of justice in our society. The fear that obscure and extremist cults will define their own practices as religious in origin and will make the judicial system vulnerable by having to pass judgments on such difficult terrain is unfounded.
§ I would like to propose a very simple criterion: a religion is "that system of beliefs and activities centred around the worship of God which is derived in whole or in part from a book revealed by God to one of His messengers". This definition is wide enough to include all denominations: the Jews, the Christians, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Sikhs. It will exclude cults.
§ I remind your Lordships that it was the courts that defined "race" after the 1976 Race Relations Act and not the state. Similarly, we can leave it to the courts to decide on a definition of "religion". If a definition of "God" were also needed, perhaps "the source and sustainer of the universe and all that exists" would suffice.
§ My final point regarding reform can be justified on the basis of moral argument centred around current notions of equality, fairness and justice. As a nation, if we are going to have an inclusive society, we need to ensure that there is statutory recognition of the fact that Britain is now a multi-cultural and multi-religious country.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Oxford
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for initiating this important debate. The Church of England, and indeed other Christian denominations, take very seriously the difficult experience and wounded feelings of particular groups, especially some of the Muslim community, who feel that they suffer discrimination which is not picked up in race legislation. Where the existing law is clearly inadequate to meet these problems, we are in principle in favour of fresh legislative provision.
The words of the Unstarred Question refer to legislation in Northern Ireland. Legislation on religious discrimination was first introduced by the Northern Ireland Constitution Act in 1973. Subsequently there has been more specific legislation, particularly relating to unemployment. The operation of the 1976 and 1989 Acts was reviewed by the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in July of this year. While making it clear that discrimination cannot be ended by legislation alone and acknowledging that there have been failures as well as successes, it nevertheless asserts—and here I quote —We are reassured by the general view from all the witnesses we heard that unlawful employment discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and political opinion appears to have declined".The situation that we are dealing with in this country is, of course, different from that in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless I suggest that the lesson to be drawn from Northern Ireland is that the right legislation can make some difference.
458 At the moment too little research has been done to indicate the extent of the problem with which we are dealing. Therefore we look forward to the results of the research commissioned from the University of Derby on this subject. What we know is that many Muslims feel discriminated against. The study by the Policy Studies Institute published in 1997, Ethnic Disadvantage in Britain: The Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities, is extremely revealing. Respondents who reported discrimination were asked whether they thought the refusal of the job or jobs was on account of their race or their religion, or was due to both of these. Very few thought that it was a result of their religion alone. However, a quarter believed that the refusal was for a mixture of reasons to do with their race and religion. In fact over 40 per cent. of South Asians, evenly spread across ethnic and religious groups, believe this combination of reasons to be operative.
Moreover, younger South Asians were more of this view than the older age group. This suggests that for South Asians the concept of racial discrimination is of a more complex character than it is in many equal opportunities policies, in which it is assumed that racial discrimination is unfair treatment simply on the grounds of colour. For example, whereas only 15 per cent. of people of Caribbean origin thought that discrimination was due to a mixture of race and religion—in their case 75 per cent. thought that it was due to race alone—39 per cent. of people of Pakistani/Bangladeshi origin thought that it was due to a mixture of religion and race. Some 38 per cent. of Hindus thought the same, as did 44 per cent. of Sikhs and 39 per cent. of Muslims. This is obviously a complex picture but it is clear that racism and hostility to particular cultures or particular religions can merge and reinforce one another.
Clearly a great deal of thought is needed on how this can best be tackled from a legislative point of view. As I said, if appropriate, workable legislation can be enacted, we on these Benches certainly support it in principle. If legislation is thought appropriate, the technical difficulties should not be regarded as insurmountable. There is of course a very proper debate about what would count as a religion—as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has already indicated—and whether it would be possible to have a definition that could work in a court. The Church of England staff group that has been working on this subject holds the view that when the courts are left to work out a definition of terms such as "religion" or "religious belief" which have been left undefined by the legislation in which they appear, the judges have in fact been able to do so. Similarly, they have been able to deal with cases where the sincerity or strength of an individual's religious belief was called into question. As a result there is already case law on the subject in various contexts in this country, as well as from the Commonwealth and US courts, including decisions on Bills of Rights and similar legislation and decisions on, for example, the European Convention on Human Rights.
459 However, the existence of English case law could itself present problems, given that it is arguably less well developed and some of the decisions are arguably less satisfactory than those from, say, Australia. But if there is a problem that can and should be tackled by legislation these difficulties could be overcome. I very much look forward to hearing the Government's thinking on this important issue.
§ 8.3 p.m.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for his extremely interesting introduction to this extremely difficult subject. I think I find myself in a most total agreement with what he said. I also find myself agreeing with much of what the right reverend Prelate said. It must be a record in my five years in the House to find myself agreeing with both the Labour Party and the Bench of Bishops. However, we may find something to disagree about in what I have to say. I shall not try to cover the same ground as either of the previous speakers.
Religion has been a potent source of division and hatred down through the ages. It has potential for generating disagreements over the tiniest of things which can lead, and have led, to members of my religion murdering their very close cousins in very large numbers. I suspect that the same is true of the Muslim religion. One can hope that we are moving towards—and should make efforts to move towards—a time of religious tolerance and lack of discrimination. But there are times when it is right to discriminate on grounds of religion. Religion is not like disability or race or gender; it is something which a person chooses. My brother-in-law has chosen to become a Muslim. It is not something he was born to; it is an individual choice he has made. As such it says something about him; it gives him a particular set of characteristics which may or may not be acceptable in certain circumstances.
The main people who, to my mind, are justified in discriminating on religious grounds are the religious themselves. For instance, there is a very widespread practice in this country, and indeed in Northern Ireland, where certain schools are only open to members of certain religions. That seems to me to be acceptable. I do not find it comfortable but none the less it seems to me something we should permit. In Northern Ireland it goes perhaps a little further than it should and causes long-term division in that society. But where it is relatively gentle and where the schools are relatively scattered, it seems to me reasonable that people of profound religious belief should be able to have their children brought up alongside members of their own religion and not mixed in with others. It is an important stage of a person's development.
There are also occasions where particular religions will want their food prepared by members of the same religion. Again that seems to me reasonable, although when you find yourself on the wrong end of that and someone whom you have been working with closely refuses to break bread with you because he considers you unclean, it is not a particularly pleasant experience. None the less it appears to me reasonable 460 that the religious should be allowed to pursue that belief even if it hurts the rest of us. I would consider it reasonable, if I was employing someone to help bring up my children, to discriminate as regards the religion of that person if I cared what beliefs my children were going to absorb in the course of their experiences with that person. I would certainly wish to exclude some of the "kookier" sects from that position.
It also seems to me that I do not wish to be obstructed in any way from arguing extremely strongly on the subject of religion. I want to be able to argue bitterly with Catholics about their opinions on birth control and to do everything I can to obstruct the effect that I believe that has on world population and the health of the planet. I want to be able to argue on almost everything with the noble Lord, Lord McNair, and to do everything I can to obstruct his beliefs. I do not wish to be halted in that because I think that it is reasonable, within the law, to have views on what scientology is. I do not think that one should feel that one is cut off by the law from expressing opinions in debate and in any other reasonable way that results from religious feeling.
Given the premise that there is acceptable religious discrimination and, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, has so clearly shown, a lot of unacceptable religious discrimination, with a pretty grey area between, it is a very hard area for legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, proposes that we limit the religions we apply non-discrimination to. That is certainly one way ahead although there are some Christian sects that are pretty unappealing in their beliefs. The right reverend Prelate discussed the prospect of leaving it to the judges to reflect the feelings of society about what religion is. Perhaps that is a way ahead.
As an alternative perhaps we could look at the question of making the area subject to an ombudsman—someone able to investigate a particular case in all its complexity, local nature and individuality and produce a report which, as ombudsmen in this country have shown, is likely to be taken up by most of those who have a care for their position in society, such as government, major corporations and local government. That might, over time, have a clearing effect on what was considered reasonable and what was considered unreasonable when it came to matters of religious discrimination. That might allow us in the end to legislate in a way which would not cause offence and outrage when people felt their reasonable expressions of opinion and discrimination were being outlawed.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing the debate.
There is no dispute that we live in a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society. We now have human rights legislation arising from our international obligations; and, following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report, we have the Government's commitment that race relations legislation will be reviewed. The question we need to ask in practical 461 terms is how relevant this legislation will be as far as concerns our diverse community in Britain, particularly when religion is at the centre of such issues.
The public recognition of the importance of religious identity to many of our citizens must be translated into legislation in order that discriminatory treatment on grounds of religion is treated on a par with other factors, such as race, colour or ethnic origin.
I am well aware that the situation here is different from the situation in Northern Ireland. On this particular point, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, will not disagree if I suggest another way in which to incorporate such legislation in statute. In the short time available to me, I will resist the temptation to elaborate on the situation in Northern Ireland and to compare it with the situation in this country.
I do not advocate extending the Northern Ireland pattern of legislation to the rest of the United Kingdom. That legislation is related mainly to employment practices. I have in mind a different approach, a much wider approach, a more holistic approach in all the areas covered by the race relations legislation.
I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill was at one time adviser to my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead when he was Home Secretary. They were pioneers as far as concerns race relations legislation. I shall be interested to know whether at the time of the legislation any consideration was given to the inclusion of religion as a part of the strategy.
There has been a general acceptance from as early as 1968—I have just been referring to some of the parliamentary debates which took place during that time—that when the second Race Relations Act was passing through Parliament, its declaration was confined to discrimination simply on racial grounds; or, to be precise, treating others less favourably on the grounds of race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins, as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, said.
However, the Act does not outlaw discrimination against a group of persons defined by reference to religion. If, however, one looks at the declaration of human rights, it includes religion among many other forms of discriminatory behaviour. Therefore, I have no hesitation whatever in supporting an amendment to race relations legislation which would extend the scope of the definition of discrimination to include religion.
The interpretation of ethnic origin in the Race Relations Act has created an anomaly. For example, the Sikhs are a racial group but the Muslims are not. In its judgment in the Mandla case the House of Lords held that although ethnic origins have a good deal in common with the concept of race, "ethnic" was used in the Race Relations Act in an appreciably wider sense than the strictly racial or biological sense.
A group can be defined by reference to its ethnic origin if it constitutes a separate and distinct community by virtue of characteristics which are 462 commonly associated with common racial origin. On the basis of this construction, the Sikhs qualify as a group defined by ethnic origins but the Muslims do not.
Islam is one of the great religions of the world. There is now a growing awareness of increased anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination. I do not wish to spell out details; there is enough research evidence available on this issue. I am aware that the Government have commissioned research to determine the extent to which religious discrimination occurs. We shall certainly await the outcome with interest.
Anti-discrimination laws represent key markers of public policy. To put religion on a par with race, sex and disability would convey the important message that religious identities are valued and respected throughout our society. It would also be evidence of our religious tolerance.
Today, I visited the Millennium Dome with some of your Lordships. How nice it would be if the section dealing with different faiths was to reflect our religious tolerance, incorporated in a legislative framework.
In response to the Macpherson Report, the Home Secretary has accepted the need to strengthen the race relations legislation. We have to develop a shared sense of national identity and a concerted determination to reduce discrimination in its various forms. Religious values are personal and deeply treasured by almost all communities. To deny a section of our community the right to enjoy its religion is a blot on our society. We should never put communities into a position where they have to hide their treasured beliefs to achieve equality. Religious tolerance and the eradication of religious discrimination must, after all, be a sign of our civilised values.
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, I am grateful, too, to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for raising this issue and for giving the House an opportunity to debate it.
I rise to express some scepticism. I have always been a strong supporter of using legislation to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, gender and disability. I have huge sympathy for the feelings expressed and explained to the House by my noble friend Lord Ahmed. But we should exercise considerable caution before extending legislative protection of the kind that exists in the areas of race, gender and disability to the area of religious belief. We would not be able easily to produce legislation that protects only Muslims. It would need to be extended to a range of religious beliefs.
We should bear in mind that we live in a largely secular society. Research published in the 1999 edition of Social Trends shows that UK Church membership, as measured by active adult members, is approximately 8 million out of an adult population of approximately 45 million. With great respect to those who have strong religious beliefs and support faith-based systems, we must take account of other people's views and their ability to challenge all belief systems in a free secular society. There would be many who would 463 see legislation providing protection on the basis of belief systems as a move towards a context of inhibiting people's rights to criticise and to free expression.
I accept fully the need for racial and religious tolerance. The European Convention on Human Rights, now enshrined in the Human Rights Act, provides full protection for individuals to pursue and practice their personal religious beliefs. That is as it should be. But I doubt that we should go further for two practical reasons.
First, my noble friend mentioned the issue of cults. It will be extremely difficult to produce a legislative definition of "religious discrimination" that does not protect cults inappropriately. We know from the work of the Information Network on New Religious Movements that there are approximately 2,000 religious cults in Europe. Many are small; some are innocuous; some are less so. There exists a considerable history of cults preying on vulnerable people, breaking up families and obtaining large sums of money from gullible and vulnerable people.
Some cults pose as religions. For example, I recall that some years ago the Court of Appeal ruled against the recognition of the Scientologists' so-called "chapels" and "ministers". The German Government have taken a very strong line in regard to Scientologists. If we produced legislation in the area of religious discrimination we would see more of this kind of approach, and that would inhibit any government of the day from taking action against inappropriate cults.
Secondly, I should like to touch on the difficult issue of when it may be legitimate to discriminate against somebody in employment and otherwise on the grounds of their religious beliefs. I do so as someone who has been a director of social services and has had to bear those issues in mind when dealing with employment relating to children. It may well be right not to approve somebody as an adoptive or foster parent because their strident and excluding religious beliefs would work against the best interests of a child. One may well have to remove the head of a children's home because he or she seeks to impose their beliefs on vulnerable children in their care. School governors may well think it inappropriate in a multi-cultural society to appoint a head teacher with obtrusive beliefs in a particular religion. These are all real situations that people would have to grapple with in the world in which we live if there was strong employment legislation to prevent people from exercising their judgment when they thought that strong religious beliefs were being used inappropriately in an employment context.
I shall not echo the point raised by my colleague, the noble Lord on the Benches opposite, on the subject of Catholicism and contraception. However, there could well be circumstances such as in a family planning clinic where it would be inappropriate to appoint someone who adhered to beliefs that made them unable to carry out their job. These are just a few practical examples of the problems that I believe 464 legislation preventing some degree of discrimination on the basis of religious belief would cause in the workplace.
The situation in Northern Ireland is special. The tribal badge of religion has been used to do terrible things within that society. I can well understand why the Government have acted as they have in terms of legislation on religious discrimination in order to break out of the straitjacket of the past. However, I suggest that the situation in England, Scotland and Wales is not the same, and for the reasons I have outlined, I hope that the Government will think very carefully indeed before extending that legislation outside Northern Ireland.
§ 8.22 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, anyone who has met the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, or heard him in action, knows what a sincere, thoughtful and moderate individual he is. I regret all the more, therefore, that I believe that his aims, in this instance, are misconceived for a number of reasons.
First, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, speaking on Monday, when he said that there are many,who believe that positive discrimination is a can of worms".—[Official Report, 25/10/99; col. 4.]That applies whether positive discrimination is formal and overt, as it is in one or two parts of the world, or, as it has to be under our existing laws in the United Kingdom, informal and semi covert. The bureaucratic burdens on businesses in Northern Ireland are bad enough, but just compare Lame in County Antrim with Leeds in Yorkshire. The Lame employer has only to try to establish over a period of time a rough balance between Catholics and Protestants, based on the respective proportion of Protestants and Catholics in a particular area. In the case of Lame, that may mean that a workforce must comprise around eight Protestants to every two Catholics. In Leeds, employers would have to try to apportion their workforce between Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Hindus and Muslims, and probably Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists as well.
As for stirring up religious hatred, that is already effectively illegal under existing laws relating to assault, including verbal assault and harassment. I believe that there have been very few prosecutions for such an offence under the more specific Northern Ireland law since its introduction. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that when he replies. If I am right in that assumption, it is not surprising, since antagonisms in Northern Ireland are essentially political rather than religious, even if the insults shouted when people spill out of a pub on a Saturday night might suggest otherwise.
Secondly, anti-discrimination legislation normally applies only to characteristics that people cannot change: race; sex; age (albeit not in Britain); permanent disability; and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Lord, Lord Warner, pointed out that it is not normally considered right to apply such 465 legislation to voluntary affiliations like religion, philosophy or political opinion, which would open up an even greater can of worms than that warned against by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson. As I understood him, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, suggests dividing religions into approved and unapproved religions, rather as happens in Germany. That is totally alien to our traditions. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord McNair, will have something to say about it when he comes to speak.
Moreover, much religious discrimination is more apparent than real. Over 20 per cent of the prison population in England and Wales is Roman Catholic, even though Catholics comprise only 10 per cent of the population as a whole. Some might unthinkingly assume that that must stem from religious discrimination, but clearly it does not. Apart from a tiny handful of errant priests, neither the police, nor the DPP, nor the judiciary will have any idea whether a defendant is Roman Catholic or otherwise. So whatever the explanation for this phenomenon, it clearly has nothing to do with religious discrimination.
For more than 45 years I have known an extended Indian Muslim family, both in this country and in India, spanning three generations. Although we do not see each other more than every few years nowadays, they remain the greatest of friends. At least a dozen members from different generations have worked or studied, and sometimes both, in this country at various times, starting in the early 1950s. As far as I know, none of them has ever suffered religious discrimination, certainly not in this country. Latterly, things are a little difficult for them in India because of the rise of extreme Hindu nationalism, but they have never suffered discrimination in Britain. I think that their secret was that they all individually resolved, without in any way compromising their religious beliefs, to try their best to do in Rome as the Romans do. That, I am sure, was the key to their success and contentment in this country.
§ 8.27 p.m.
§ Lord Haskel
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Ahmed on introducing this debate, but I am not sure that I can agree with him. However, this is a disagreement amongst friends.
I know a little about discrimination. As a child I came to the United Kingdom as a refugee to escape religious discrimination. Like my noble friend, I support the 1976 Race Relations Act, and I recognise that there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland. What concerns me is the effect of the law of unexpected results in this case.
My concern is that extending the Northern Ireland regulations will slow the changes that are taking place in our religious life today. I think that these changes are happening as a result of greater understanding, of greater tolerance, and a spirit of ecumenism. This breaking down of the barriers between religions is leading to an inevitable increase in marriages, partnerships and friendships between people of 466 different religions, and movement between religions. I like these changes. They are a sign of a real multi-racial and multi-religious society. Indeed, at the synagogue of which I am a member, to make such people feel more welcome, we have a special category of affiliate membership for non-Jews and for their children.
My concern is that should the Northern Ireland regulations be extended, the law of unexpected results will mean that religions will become fixed and categorised. Religious purity will become legalised, and the growing tolerance and understanding being shown towards those in mixed relationships and mixed friendships, and those like the brother-in-law of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who are intrigued with other religions, will become more restrained. I do not want religion to become fossilised in law. I want the law to facilitate tolerance and understanding. These changes reflect the multi-religion society in which we actually live, and I welcome them. That is why I cannot support my noble friend Lord Ahmed.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Lord McNair
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing this debate. However, I have to say that this is one of those occasions when one's prepared speech goes out of the window. I was quite amazed by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. He had every right to make it and I would fight to the death for his right to do so. But he has never done me the courtesy of asking me about my beliefs or discussing them with me. In fact, I find it extremely difficult to accept that he has any idea what I believe. The kind of unthinking bigotry that he has expressed gives rise to discrimination and, therefore, to the kind of discussion that we are having tonight.
I turn to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Warner. The Chapel Case, as it has come to be known, of which I assume he has made an exhaustive study, did not refer to the religiosity of the particular group concerned; it referred to whether that building was used for religious services. That is a very different thing, as the noble Lord who is to reply will be aware.
I was interested in the mention by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, of the situation in Germany. I agree with him about the idea of having official and nonofficial religions. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, will know that in Germany the Lutherans, the Catholics and the Jews are official religions and are able to advertise on television. The Muslims are not. There is a problem if one happens to be on the wrong side of the line. I made a considerable study of the situation in Germany. I was interested to find out whether one particular group was in the cross-hairs of the German bureaucratic machine or whether other religious minorities were. I discovered that the Germans organise this by having official bodies. They try to control their religious minorities through these official bodies. I met the leader of the Jewish Council in Germany, who has now passed away. I also met an impressive Muslim leader—the leader of the Muslims in the Berlin area—who had tremendous problems because he would not toe the line.
467 I am still amazed by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I do hope that at some stage he will do me the courtesy of discussing my beliefs with me. To dismiss someone without any discussion or knowledge of their beliefs is bigotry.
My Lords, I apologise if I have unduly offended the noble Lord in what I said. I think I said that I expected that I would want to disagree with the noble Lord about everything and that I wished to maintain my right to disagree with him about everything without falling foul of the law. I did not mean to imply that what he believes is wrong in relation to what I believe—I am just as capable of being wrong as anyone—but that I wished to defend my right to dispute, and hotly dispute, religion with the noble Lord without fear of the law.
§ Lord McNair
My Lords, as I have said, I support the noble Lord's right as well. Perhaps we can have tea together and then we can do our hot disputing.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ Baroness Uddin
My Lords, I am absolutely assured that tea at the House of Lords will resolve any issue, including religious discrimination.
I believe that a significant part of the House is extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for initiating this debate to examine religious discrimination and the anomaly that exists within the law of the United Kingdom. I do not accept the scepticism of some noble Lords. For instance, the professional ethics of doctors in Muslim countries, as in the United Kingdom, practising abortion would apply. It is wrong to suggest that religious practice would prevent that in any part of the globe. It makes me think that we may have a long way to go in understanding the different religions and peoples of the world.
It is now widely accepted that in order to achieve the desirable goal of a multi-racial and multi-faith society, the fight against racism in modern Britain has to be broad and have conviction and courage. The Government, through the introduction of the Crime and Disorder Bill last year, made the stand against racism incredibly stronger. I am hopeful that I may see the day when religious discrimination will be part and parcel of that stand.
The launch in September 1997 of the Runnymede Trust's report, Islamophobia: a challenge for us all, as mentioned by my noble friend, by the Home Secretary was another historic event that makes the clearest commitment to an anti-racist government which gives birth to a new British tradition. According to the report the word Islamophobia" has been coined because there is a new reality which needs naming. Anti-Muslim prejudice has grown so considerably and so rapidly in recent years that change in the vocabulary is needed so that it can be acted against.
In relation to "Islamophobia" in modern Britain, there are a number of areas of concern. In each of these areas English law has not yet developed sufficiently to 468 be fully responsive to the needs of British Muslims. Many Muslims are discriminated against for the simple reason that they are Muslims: Muslim marriages are not recognised; the Muslim education system is just beginning to be recognised; Muslim schools are not funded adequately; Muslim organisations are not funded adequately; and there is vilification, blasphemy, incitement to hatred and violence.
Several pieces of legislation enacted in recent years—notably the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1996—show official recognition of the injustices which can be caused by patterns of discrimination. As has been mentioned, the Race Relations Act, for example, makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of race and nationality and on the grounds of ethnic or national origins in the fields of employment, education and so on. However, there is no legislation in England specifically covering discrimination on the ground of someone's religion. Like in most other forms of discrimination it is often the women who suffer the wrath of religious discrimination. I was going to say that it is not reflected in this Chamber. Perhaps I will consider withdrawing that.
Muslim women, obliged to cover their head with a scarf, have borne the brunt of religious discrimination in the workplace. Over the past couple of years there have been hundreds of cases up and down the country of Muslim women being discriminated against because of their faith. But it is not only Muslim women who have suffered. There is evidence to show that other women from minority religious faiths have suffered too. I agree with other noble Lords that enactment of the Fair Employment (Northern Ireland) Acts of 1976 and 1989 on the mainland would not solve all the problems of religious discrimination, but it might just send a necessary and powerful message of the kind of inclusive society that we desire in new Britain—a new Britain where we do not compare a cult with a religion and where we do not tolerate religious discrimination. I believe that the Muslims of Britain rightly aspire to having that demand met by the British Government. It would be a very small step in terms of law, but a major leap in terms of the efforts towards a just and fair society.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Haringey
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for initiating this extremely useful and interesting debate. I am conscious that I am the last in a long line of Back-Bench speakers and that much has already been said. I shall endeavour not to repeat but to respond to some of the points made.
Some of the comments we have heard offer powerful testimony to the continued existence of religious discrimination in this society. I say "continued" because such discrimination has existed over many centuries. One has only to look at the story books that I received as a child—which I expect are still in circulation—which look back at the history of this 469 country with reference to the Crusades. They offer an extremely unflattering portrayal of the infidel against whom the gallant English went to fight. Exactly the same kind of message continues in the media's portrayal of some religions in a very unflattering light and in the way in which they are perceived by many people.
We must also recognise an anomaly. As my noble friend Lord Ahmed made clear in his opening remarks, unlike racial discrimination, religious discrimination is not unlawful. If we look around society today, there is plenty of evidence of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and discrimination between religious communities. The other anomaly is that incitement to racial hatred is an offence, while incitement to religious hatred is not.
We must learn lessons from events elsewhere in the world. We must look at the wars that are taking place around the world based on hatred of particular religious beliefs. We have only to look at some of the conflicts that have occurred in the past few years in Europe and in Africa to see the extent to which they are based on religious conflict. Many in this country take the self-satisfied position that it could not happen here. My point is that those feelings exist: they exist under the surface. We must recognise the nature of the communities that are now based in many of our inner-city areas and that they contain exactly the same mixture of passions as exist in various parts of the world. So it is a matter on which we must focus, and we must take it extremely seriously.
My noble friend Lord Warner raised what he described as a series of considerable cautions in regard to the issues that are before us. He said that if there were to be legislation, it would have to cover a range of religious beliefs. And so it would. There can be no argument about that. My noble friend Lord Ahmed volunteered a definition, and was accused by subsequent speakers of defining approved and unapproved religions. But the matter would ultimately need to be defined either in legislation or by the courts. I rather suspect that any sane-minded person would be able to look at certain sets of beliefs and organisations and say, "Yes, that is a religion; this is not. This is outside the definition".
My noble friend Lord Warner also said that we live in a secular society and that therefore this concern is irrelevant. I may be misapplying the—
§ Lord Harris of Haringey
My noble friend says that my remark is unfair. But the fact that we live in a secular society means that those who have sincere and strongly held religious beliefs are even more of a minority; they are even more subject to discrimination than might otherwise be the case.
My noble friend Lord Warner also spoke about the problems that could arise in children's homes and schools if employment legislation were to be introduced forbidding discrimination on grounds of religious belief. But surely the matter would have to be 470 tackled by examining the professional practices of the individuals concerned. It is not appropriate for anyone in a position of authority to "force feed" particular beliefs down children's throats. That would be the ground on which action would need to be taken.
My noble friend Lord Haskel talked about the dangers of fossilising religious beliefs by such a measure. That need not be the case. Some of the legislation considered by this House during the past few years has placed on the new institutions of devolved government the responsibility to promote harmonious relations. That is the lesson that we should learn from the Northern Ireland legislation: the need for positive action on behalf of the structures of society and organisations to promote harmonious relations between different communities, races and religions. That is the way to meet the objective of my noble friend Lord Haskel of achieving a harmonious society where religious beliefs are not fossilised.
I am hopeful that, following the debates initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and myself at the Committee and Report stages of the Greater London Authority Bill, we shall see a similar provision on the face of that Bill by the time it leaves this House. That precedent, and the precedents set in other legislation devolving powers to assemblies, offer a way forward. I hope that when the Race Relations Act is reviewed, as the Government have promised to do, those points will be taken on board.
§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Lord Craigmyle
My Lords, I am grateful for the chance to say a few words in the gap. I listened to the opening remarks in the debate from the steps of the Throne and I was very impressed. I cannot offer an opinion on the specific question of extending the Northern Ireland legislation to the rest of the UK. However, I rise to support the theme that underlies the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed; namely, that there should be no defence in law for unfair behaviour based on religious preferences. I support that principle profoundly.
Perhaps I may ask a favour of the noble Lord. Will he use his very good office and influence also to help the religious minorities of other countries to fight discrimination?
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, everyone who has spoken has expressed gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing this important debate. All speakers have contributed in their different ways, bringing their own experiences to the debate. My qualifications for speaking come from my own experience as a secular Jew, a humanist, and someone who helped to frame the Race Relations Act and the Sex Discrimination Act in the 1970s, and who attempted at the time to knit together the Northern Ireland legislation with the British legislation into some kind of comprehensive code, and failed to do so.
The fundamental question raised, with great power, cogency and eloquence by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, is the 471 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.
When I hear technical objections being raised I wonder whether we ever look at the laws of other countries. Almost every other Commonwealth and continental European country, as well as Ireland, have in their written constitutions guarantees of equal protection of the law without discrimination on any ground, including religion. It is only because we do not have such constitutional guarantees that we have the incoherent patchwork of laws that act in their place. Surely, it is absurd that my rights as a British citizen should depend on whether I happen to live in Great Britain or Northern Ireland. How can it make sense that religious discrimination is forbidden in Northern Ireland and not in Great Britain? I know of no other country like that. It is no use saying than: there is something special about Northern Ireland. There is nothing special about religious discrimination that is confined only to Northern Ireland. Therefore, I find that argument unpersuasive.
It is also said that to define religion is very complicated. However, as the right reverend Prelate pointed out, religion does not have to be defined in statute law. It would be undesirable to do so because then it would be fossilised, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. The Human Rights Act 1998 has a special section that protects freedom of conscience and religion. It does not define "religion" any more than Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights defines it. It is left to the courts to decide on a case-by-case basis which religious beliefs and organisations fall within the protection of the law in the event of arbitrary discrimination.
We are bound in international law to do something about the gap in our legal system. Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights is now incorporated into our law. Unfortunately, although it covers education and property, it does not deal with employment discrimination. The Government are to 472 be commended that in June they ratified ILO Convention 111 which forbids discrimination in employment and occupation on religious and other grounds. There is an obligation under the ILO convention to legislate, where appropriate, against religious discrimination in the field of employment. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights imposes similar obligations. Speaking as a lawyer, we are out of step with international standards in not providing an effective remedy.
In his speech at Bournemouth the Prime Minister made some very commendable observations about the commitment of the Government to equality of opportunity and access to work. Speaking as someone who had the privilege to work for a previous Labour government in this area, I should be astonished if the present Government showed a more lukewarm commitment to equality and effective legal remedies than did Roy Jenkins in his day. I very much hope that the arguments of those who say that this is technically impossible and do not look beyond the four corners of this country will not count in the end. For those reasons, I support the objective of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, although, like him, I am not wedded to the idea that Northern Ireland legislation is the only way to achieve it.
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
My Lords, even within the extended time I shall not attempt to reflect on all the points that have been made. However, one point that has been universally made is that the whole House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, for introducing this debate. I repeat that. I do not say that only in a formal sense. I believe that this is an exceptionally important matter for the future of our multi-cultural society. As has become clear during the debate, it is also a very difficult matter that deserves careful thought. This debate has also assisted the social arrangements of my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord McNair, which we hope will lead to greater understanding even within the walls of your Lordships' House.
I was for a while a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office. I share the underlying premise of the noble Lord's Question that the whole of our country—Northern Ireland and Great Britain—should as far as possible be governed by the same laws. But the differences in law reflect the special problems of Northern Ireland. Widespread discrimination in employment in Northern Ireland was an exceptionally damaging component of the troubles, which have cost 3,000 lives. That is the background to the Northern Ireland legislation. Some discrimination still exists there. The Northern Ireland fair employment laws of 1976 and 1989, now developed in the 1998 legislation, made very important advances in monitoring, reporting and helping to improve that situation.
Your Lordships should not think that that legislation is without its critics for a variety of reasons: the bureaucratic burdens on employers and the difficulty of recruiting from the other community, whichever it is in a particular case, in districts where 473 only one group lives. Another effect of the troubles is that in particular areas of Northern Ireland there are less mixed areas and sharper differentials. Incidentally, the Northern Ireland legislation does not require or expect positive discrimination. However, it requires affirmative action. Briefly, one cannot, for example, say that because there are too many Protestants one needs to build up the quota of Catholics. However, one can make a particular effort to recruit Catholics in a situation of that kind by the nature of one's advertisements, where one places them and so on.
I do not believe that the remedies aimed at that problem can simply be transplanted to Great Britain, where the situation is different. It has already been pointed out that in Northern Ireland the discrimination which led to the legislation involves only two groups: Protestants and Catholics. These descriptions of the community divide in Northern Ireland conceal its true nature. It is not a doctrinal argument. Some churchmen on both sides are among those who work hardest to bridge the divide. Essentially, the division is tribal. But in Great Britain the religious scene is much more complicated. The discrimination with which we are concerned today concerns Muslims, Hindus and others, but generally worded law about religion would not be confined to them. There are all kinds of churches and religious groups, including the Church of Scientology, Druids, various cults and so on. Even the main religions have sub-divisions within them which often embody some of the sharpest divisions of all. After all, that is the Northern Ireland case. Both communities are Christian but the division is very sharp.
I recall a very difficult problem with which I was concerned when I was a Member of another place about whether places of worship used by the Exclusive Brethren—a special Christian group—were legally churches for the purposes of gaining relief from local rates. The Act said that they should be open for public worship. They were not regarded as open but exclusive. In the course of that argument it was pointed out that for a good part of the time neither monasteries nor nunneries were open for public worship. I believe that that illustrates the difficulty of framing legislation in this area.
If legislation is to be effective, those problems of definition must be solved. They cannot simply be brushed aside. I do not say that they are incapable of solution; I do not believe that. But I do not think that they have yet been solved, with all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, who gave us one suggestion for the definition of religion. But similarly—it came out in the speech of my noble friend Lord Lucas—careful thought needs to be given to a definition of "unacceptable" and "acceptable" discrimination, because some religious discrimination is acceptable.
We are not totally without legislation on this matter. We have the laws against the incitement to racial hatred in the Public Order Act 1986. But in other respects the law is both haphazard and difficult.
474 We have now the Human Rights Act. I had hoped to hear a little more from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on how he thought that might impinge on the situation; I think that it is probably helpful. However, great care and thought needs to be given to how we go further. We know that the Government have commissioned research. No doubt we shall hear more about that in a few minutes. But the law has a smaller part to play, in my judgment, in these matters than understanding and education in its widest sense. Knowledge of other people breaks down discrimination more quickly and more effectively than ever the law can do. And I believe that the media have as much to contribute as the schools in that respect.
I have remarked previously in your Lordships' House that I think that it does immense damage when the impression is given that all Muslims are fundamental extremists. The vast majority are not. Their family and community values are an example to the rest of us. It is absolutely clear from the debate that we want everyone to set their faces against any religious discrimination. To pick up the words of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, when opening the debate, no one in this country is a second-class citizen; but, more than that, no one should feel himself a second-class citizen either.
§ 9.1 p.m.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, it has been an extensive, interesting and fascinating debate; and for that we should be forever grateful to my noble friend Lord Ahmed for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. It has been wide ranging. I have managed to make several pages of notes. I cannot promise today to do justice to all the points raised, but I shall try to run through in general terms the Government's approach to these matters.
My noble friend Lord Ahmed knows, as a Muslim, that issues of religion are important. They are clearly close to his heart and he has often spoken passionately in this House about issues of importance to the British Muslim community. His perspective on these matters greatly enriches your Lordships' House and we should thank him for that—as does the contribution on matters spiritual and temporal made by the other noble Lords who have spoken from a religious and ethical perspective. So it is right that this House should consider issues of concern to our religious communities.
This is a country with a strong Christian history. But it is also a country which enjoys the benefits of a broad and diverse religious landscape. If I may, I shall quote from the multifaith directory which estimates that in the United Kingdom as a whole there are some half a million Hindus, 300,000 Jews, 1½ million Muslims and half a million Sikhs. The list is a long one, with significant numbers of Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Jains, Baha'is and many other minority faiths.
The Government have a clear vision of a multicultural Britain, a Britain where every citizen, every community, earns and gives respect, where rights and responsibilities are well balanced, a nation which 475 values the contribution made by each and every one of our diverse communities, takes pride in our diversity and celebrates it 10 the world. We want to see a truly dynamic society in which 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. Only in that way shall we be able to reap the huge advantages—economic, social and cultural—which diversity brings.
In order to achieve that vision, the Government are determined to tackle and eliminate discrimination and intolerance. Prejudice, racism, bigotry and xenophobia all blight people's lives; and they blight our communities. My noble friend has reminded us helpfully of how religious intolerance and discrimination against Catholics in Northern Ireland was tackled effectively.
I want to start with the Government's approach in general terms. The Human Rights Act will incorporate into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights. On 2nd October 2000 we shall bring the Human Rights Act fully into force. This is a major new initiative and will help us create a new culture of rights and responsibilities in the UK. The Act gives further effect to rights in the ECHR. Those include rights relating directly to religion. In particular of course there is Article 9: the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. But other ECHR rights also touch on religion—for example, Article 10; as does Article 8, the right to respect for private and family life.
The ECHR is about balance. Yes, there are rights, but as Strasbourg says, there are limits to those rights. And sometimes the state has to interfere with them. It is a matter of balancing the rights of the individual with the needs of society as a whole. The Human Rights Act is about balance: balancing one right with another and balancing rights with responsibilities.
Nowhere is that balance more important than with religious matters. It is essential that we have an effective dialogue on religious discrimination. And know that the Human Rights Act will be a great help in developing that dialogue. The Human Rights Act is already having an impact.
I should like also to turn to matters relating to race and religion. On the question of racially aggravated offences which were introduced in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, let me begin by making it absolutely clear that there is no question of this Government condoning religiously motivated violence or harassment.
The provisions in the Crime and Disorder Act do not protect some groups and not others. They protect everyone from racist crime. During the passage of the Bill, a number of noble Lords raised the issue of whether those offences would cover an attack made on a Muslim. The Government were also aware of the concerns of some religious groups, in particular Muslim organisations. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary met with Muslim community leaders to discuss this precise issue.
476 We believe in practice that most cases, which may appear to have a religious element, will also have a racial element. We do not believe that when the perpetrators of those offences attack Muslims they do so because of hostility towards the tenets of Islam. They do so because of racist hostility towards the victim and towards the ethnic minority groups that are associated with the Muslim faith in this country. The test of what amounts to "racially aggravated" for the purposes of these offences requires that racial hostility is "wholly or partly" a motivating factor.
It follows that even if there is religious hostility, provided that part of the hostility is racist the offence is covered by these provisions. We amended the Bill to make that absolutely clear. The religious element is immaterial where racism forms even a part of the motivation for the offence. We believe that that will cover the vast majority of cases that involve the Muslim community.
We are alive to the concerns of the Muslim community and others about religiously motivated crime. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made clear during the debate on the Crime and Disorder Bill in another place that we had not ruled out extending these provisions. We have commissioned research, which is now well under way, to examine the implementation and effectiveness of these offences.
I now turn my attention to the Race Relations Act 1976. The Act makes unlawful direct or indirect discrimination against a group of persons in Great Britain defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said, the decision in this House in the Mandla case brought Sikhs and Jews, as groups capable of being defined by their ethnic origins, within the scope of the Race Relations Act.
The reasoning which Lord Fraser applied in that case means that Muslims, Christians and other faiths resident in a variety of cultures are not capable of being defined by ethnic origins and therefore not within the scope of the Act.
This decision has led to the anomaly where certain faith groups receive legal protection from discrimination which is denied to other faith groups. However, in practice, the difference might not be so great. The existing evidence, of which there is very little, suggests that in the vast majority of cases discrimination suffered by followers of minority faiths is based on their ethnicity rather than their beliefs. And where discrimination is based on ethnicity there is protection under the 1976 Act; as in the case of an Asian Muslim woman who is discriminated against as a result of wearing the hijab, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin.
Is that discrimination motivated by the hijab as a symbol of Muslim identity? We in this House recognise that the hijab is exactly that; a proud declaration of a Muslim woman's identity and faith. I suggest that the mind that harbours ignorant and racist views sees the hijab only as a symbol of ethnicity and the motivation of racism.
477 The Government are alive to the concerns of the minority faith communities on this issue. We do not have a closed mind. The Prime Minister, in addressing the Muslim Council of Britain in May this year (the first Prime Minister ever to do so), said:We are listening to those in the Muslim community who want to make sure that they get the right protection under the law".I suggest that we would all subscribe to that.
The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, also mentioned the law regarding incitement to racial hatred. The current law is contained in the Public Order Act 1986. Section 17 of that Act defines racial hatred as:hatred against a group of persons in Great Britain defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins".The definition is the same as that used by the Race Relations Act 1976 and the same difficulties therefore arise as with that Act.
The Government are concerned that the law should be as effective as possible. Let me assure the noble Lord that the Government are aware of the concerns that the provisions of the Act do not extend to incitement to religious hatred. That is a matter to which we shall be giving careful consideration in due course.
The noble Lord's Question was whether the Government would extend to the rest of Britain the Northern Ireland legislation prohibiting discrimination on the ground of religion. The Fair Employment Act 1989, to which the noble Lord referred, is a piece of legislation crafted in response to the particular circumstances that applied at that time in Northern Ireland. I need not remind this House of the terrible history of sectarian hostility and violence that the people of Northern Ireland have suffered and which provided a very real context for this legislation.
One manifestation of that hostility was clear and indisputable cases of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. In short, whether an individual was Catholic or Protestant influenced his or her ability to secure employment. As yet, no comparable evidence relating to the position of religious minorities in Britain has been put to the Government. There is no quick fix to be administered here. This is a complex and sensitive area and it would be wrong of the Government to legislate without first having a clear understanding of the nature and scale of the mischief that needs to be addressed.
I have made many references in my speech to the paucity of evidence on which the Government are prepared to act in this area. I hope that noble Lords will not think that we see such a lack of evidence as justification for pushing this important issue aside. Nothing could be further from the truth.
478 My right honourable friend the Home Secretary—
§ Lord Lester of Herne Hill
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. Is he aware that the arguments he is now deploying about lack of evidence were used against the late Lord Brockway who had to introduce 12 Private Member's Bills before racial discrimination became unlawful? Is he further aware that the Human Rights Act 1998 will do nothing whatever to provide a remedy for discrimination in the employment field based on religious grounds as distinct from racial grounds?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making those points. Given his experience in this area I defer to his greater knowledge and wisdom in the matter. I am simply making the case that we want to proceed on the basis of evidence and need. That must be fairly considered. It is, I am sure, a point that the noble Lord will wish to take on board.
I refer to research commissioned by the University of Derby whose aim is to assess the scale and nature of religious discrimination in England and Wales. The project has been under way since earlier this year and a report is due shortly. It covers an assessment of the evidence of both actual and perceived religious discrimination. It looks at the patterns shown by that evidence, including the main victims, the perpetrators, and the way in which discrimination manifests itself.
The report will look also at the indications of the extent to which religious discrimination might overlap with racial discrimination, a point helpfully raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. It will also seek to identify the range of policy options available to tackle religious discrimination, including, I trust, looking at the legislative framework. The results of the research will provide us with a basis on which we can make informed decisions, which I know your Lordships value.
In tackling discrimination and disadvantage, we must, from time to time, refer to and use the law. That is important. It sets the framework and the culture by which we approach difficult and sensitive matters such as this.
This has been an important and, as I said earlier, wide-ranging debate. There is a lesson that we can take from the excellent inter-faith dialogue and work flourishing in the UK today and in which several noble Lords engage. The lesson is that discussion of these issues leads to greater mutual understanding. From that understanding comes respect. I humbly submit to your Lordships that the issues helpfully and fruitfully raised in this debate will help to shape and inform the Government's approach to this issue. It is an area where we must tread carefully and also wisely, seeking ways in which we may remedy and address the issues of religious discrimination in our society.
§ House adjourned at seventeen minutes past nine o'clock.