MP for Hornsey and Wood Green
Coming towards the end of the line by line scrutiny of the Bill. Blogging the little bit of it that I have has been quite a struggle as there is so much to cover – and I simply can’t cover all of it. For those who are interested – the entire transcript of all the evidence sessions and committee sessions is on Hansard – so for those who want word by word of each moment – that’s the place for you.
The key issues in the 17th and 18th sessions were as follows.
There was an extraordinary response from Vera Baird, Solicitor General, to my Lib Dem colleague, Evan Harris’ amendment. This was all to do with the schools being exempted from protection afforded by this Bill. The problem is that this leaves in place, without change, the old laws that are in the School Standards and Framework Act. Here is a little bit of the discussion just at the beginning of this particular argument – to set the scene.
Dr. Harris: In the Bill we are dealing with the rights of people to not be discriminated against on one of the protected grounds. Section 60 of the School Standards and Framework Act arguably gives state schools the right to dismiss someone on the basis of their belief, their attendance at worship or their conduct. It is alleged by faith schools that conduct that is not consistent with those tenets, including private conduct related to sexual orientation, comes within sections 58 to 60. The Solicitor-General will know that when hon. Members debated the 2003 employment regulations, which are reproduced in the Bill, there was a long debate about the paragraph in those regulations that said that, notwithstanding the regulations, sections 58 to 60 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 will apply. Therefore, this is very much a live issue; that is what the provisions say.
So you can see – hopefully – where the argument lies. We Lib Dems think that this exemption should be got rid of as it allows discrimination to continue under that older Act. And there is an ongoing argument through many of the discussions about the protection for ‘religion and belief’ where there is a fundamental disagreement as ‘the tenets and beliefs’ of some religions are discriminatory – specifically that homosexuality is wrong. Blimey – we’ve just had a religious Christian leader saying that homosexuals need to repent and change on the news – which I think illustrates the point.
The Solicitor General’s response was thus:
The Solicitor-General: The UK negotiated the inclusion of article 4(2) of the framework directive with the intention of preserving the provisions in the School Standards and Framework Act, and we are satisfied that they are compliant. That provides for future legislation to allow differential treatment on religious grounds, where that reflects national practices and where there is a genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement. Nothing in the Act can be used to discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation, which would be unlawful in employment law.
Let me add — this is all that I intend to add — that we do not intend to override substantive education legislation in the Bill. There is no problem whatever, and we will not mend something that is not broken.
This was all she would say in response to eight key questions that exposed the very real harm that could prevail in schools if the Government’s exemption went ahead.
It is fine to disagree – the Government almost always does – but to be so contemptuous and not give a proper response I think is disgraceful and a good example of how the Government disdains real argument. When it can’t answer – it falls back on simply being rude!
Then there was then a bit of a row about scouts. The proposition was that you shouldn’t have to swear a religious oath to join – and examples are to be forthcoming from Evan Harris (which he will send to the committee) of volunteers (adult) who have been told just to take the oath but cross their fingers – as they are desperate for volunteers to run the scouts but many who would wish to are not of the right religion or are not religious. Government awaits the evidence!
An interesting discussion then ensued, based on two of Evan’s amendments. These were about discrimination in sport – most noticeably between men and women. It happens in a number of ways. For example – our women’s cricket team won the world cup – and got barely any coverage compared to what would have happened had it been the men’s team. So – it’s about the different attitude of the broadcasters. And to those who say that the broadcasters broadcast what people want to watch – the discrimination starts in the amount of women’s events compared to men’s. If you take one sport (like Olympic cycling) there are more men’s races than women’s. There is no reason for this and the consequence is that women’s cycling is secondary or perceived to be secondary to men’s cycling. There is no reason – physical or otherwise – for this discrepancy and the media broadcast what is there – so if there are less women’s events there will be less coverage.