Thursday, 4 February 2010

Equality Bill: did the government back down?

Newspaper headlines on Wednesday were confusing:

Independent Jerome Taylor Harriet Harman defends equality legislation following Pope’s criticism

Telegraph Andrew Porter and Martin Beckford Victory for religious groups as Labour gives up on Equality Bill clause condemned by Pope

The Times Rosemary Bennett and Ruth Gledhill Harriet Harman backs down over employment equality for churches

The Independent also had The Big Question: What is equality legislation, and why is the Pope so concerned about it? by Andy McSmith

Andrew Brown interpreted all this as Harman retreats.

So what actually happened?

First, on Thursday last week, long before the Pope spoke, Harriet Harman answered a question in the House of Commons. You can read the Hansard record of it here. The relevant bit is also copied below the fold.

Second, this week the following statement was issued by the GEO on Tuesday:

Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, said:

“There are religious jobs and non-religious jobs within organised religion. For example, a pensions assistant ensuring that the records database is kept up to date is not doing a religious job. Issuing and processing invoices, even if it is done in the employment of a church or other religious organisation is not a religious job.

“Employment and non-discrimination law applies to religious organisations when they employ people in non-religious jobs in the same way that it does to all other employers. We have never insisted on non-discrimination legislation applying to religious jobs such as being a vicar, a bishop, an imam or a rabbi.

“Religious organisations can decide themselves how to do that. However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organisations must comply with the law. We thought that it would be helpful for everyone involved to clarify the law, and that is what the amendment that we brought forward aimed to do. That amendment was rejected. So the law remains as it was.”

Andrew Rosindell: Will the Minister finally admit that were it not for the successful amendment from Baroness O’Cathain in the House of Lords earlier this week, the Equality Bill as unamended would have further restricted employment for people working in religious organisations?

Ms Harman: No, it would not. We thought that it would be helpful for everyone involved to clarify the law, and that is what the amendment that we brought forward aimed to do. That amendment was rejected. However, it would be helpful for the House to understand that there are religious jobs and non-religious jobs within organisations. For example, I would say that a pensions assistant ensuring that the records database is kept up to date was not doing a religious job. I would also say that issuing and processing invoices, even if it is done in the employment of the Church of England, is not a religious job.

To make it clear, the law applies to religious organisations when they employ people in non-religious jobs in the same way that it does to everyone else. We have always been clear that we are not going to insist on non-discrimination in relation to religious jobs such as being a vicar, a bishop, an imam or a rabbi. The law has stepped back from that and said that religious organisations can decide themselves how to do that. However, when it comes to non-religious jobs, those organisations must comply with the law, and that is how the law remains.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Minister will know that before the Government’s defeat, her Bill as unamended did not even make it clear that ministers of religion would have to live in accordance with the faith of their religion. Following the Government’s defeat in the other place not once but three times, by a coalition led by Conservative peers, bishops and Cross Benchers, the Bill has been improved. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will accept the decision in the other place to enable Churches to insist that key posts be held by those who live in accordance with the tenets of their faith, or will she seek to reverse that defeat in this House?

Ms Harman: I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to perpetrate a further misunderstanding. We are absolutely clear that we have never intended to extend the non-discrimination provisions to ministers of religion, nor have we ever tried to do so. Therefore they are exempted. We have always made it absolutely clear that they are and will continue to be exempted from the non-discrimination laws, and we have not sought to change that. There has been an issue about what is or is not a religious job, and we sought to clarify that. Our helpful clarification was not regarded as helpful in the House of Lords, and therefore the amendment was defeated. We will consider how to respond to that, but an official announcement will be made in due course, once these things have gone through the machinery, as it were. However, I would reassure hon. Members that the policy will remain as it is, and I would not want to lead them to anticipate that it will be brought forward again in this House.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Thursday, 4 February 2010 at 9:16am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: equality legislation
Comments

Regardless of what you think about discrimination of people, I find the whole discrimination between religious jobs and non-religious jobs to be entirely frustrating. The church administrator has a spiritual (or religious) calling to organise the vicar! In the context of a priesthood of all believers there is not much room for a distinction between one job being 'religious' and another not being so. I know that's not the main point of what's going on, but it bothers me.

Posted by: PeterB on Thursday, 4 February 2010 at 11:43am GMT

I think that it's difficult to speak of a retreat.

The fact is the Government has lost the votes in Parliament - albeit the unelected part with Bishops sitting in it.

After you lose the votes you ask yourself if you have a chance of winning on a 'go-around' but in most instances it means you don't or you'd have won the first time round.

In one sense the law can't change because of the existence of a Directive which covers discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in employment that UK courts have already interpreted as covering posts within religious organisations and as Harman states, that remains the same.

Posted by: Craig Nelson on Thursday, 4 February 2010 at 11:49am GMT

This is the point. Nothing has changed because the amendment would not have changed anything substantial. Clergy and directly religious staff are exempt, others will not be, and I think if the church think, given European directives, that the tribunals will fall on their side, they are even more naive and stupid than I already thought.

The law remains as it was, and the amended law would have simply added clarification rather than changed it altogether. The church lost that argument. I think Lord Lester was right - the church have actually voted against something which may well have given them more of what they wanted.

Posted by: Merseymike on Thursday, 4 February 2010 at 3:02pm GMT

Speaking of discrimination, over on Episcopal Cafe is coverage of both Hilary Clinton and Obama objecting in the strongest terms to the proposed legislation in Uganda at the [loathesome] National Prayer Breakfast. Meanwhile, from His Fuzziness ... zilch!

Posted by: Cynthia Gilliatt on Thursday, 4 February 2010 at 4:58pm GMT

I agree. I think it is outrageous that the Government and others think it is fine for ministers of religion to be discriminated against, attacked, hounded, driven out if possible, and generally made very unhappy.

No respect for the personal and family life of ministers. It cannot be right, moral or for the Good...

'Regardless of what you think about discrimination of people, I find the whole discrimination between religious jobs and non-religious jobs to be entirely frustrating. The church administrator has a spiritual (or religious) calling to organise the vicar! In the context of a priesthood of all believers there is not much room for a distinction between one job being 'religious' and another not being so. I know that's not the main point of what's going on, but it bothers me.

Posted by: PeterB on Thursday, 4 February 2010 at 11:43am GMT
I think that it's difficult to speak of a retreat.

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Thursday, 4 February 2010 at 7:47pm GMT

But why are those of us who are (already) ordained fair game for the discrimination of the official church hierarchies ?

Posted by: Rev L Roberts on Thursday, 4 February 2010 at 7:58pm GMT
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