Some exchanges from the House of Commons last Thursday:
Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): … I know that my right hon. and learned Friend shares my view that it is wrong that religious organisations should be able to discriminate against, for example, gay people or women who apply for non-religious posts in those organisations. She will also know that a Government amendment on that subject was defeated recently in the other place. Will she therefore take this opportunity to clarify for hon. Members whether she will reintroduce such an amendment when the Equality Bill returns to the Commons?
Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. The Government’s policy is clear and has not changed. Our view remains that religious organisations employing people should comply with the law that applies to all other employers, whether that is the requirement to have written contracts, pay sick pay or the minimum wage, or the requirement not to sack people unfairly or discriminate against them. However, our position has always been that for specifically religious work—as a vicar, priest, rabbi or imam—religious organisations would be exempt from non-discrimination law. A religious organisation cannot discriminate against gay people or women when it hires a bookkeeper, but it can when choosing a minister of religion.
The amendment that we proposed in the House of Lords did not intend to change that policy position. What it sought to do was make the distinction between religious and non-religious jobs clearer. The Lords did not regard our amendment as helpful. We will therefore leave the law as it is, and not bring the amendment back to this House. The law will remain as it was: in anti-discrimination law there is an exemption for religious jobs but not for non-religious jobs.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): With regard to what the Leader of the House said earlier about the Equality Bill, she will know that concern was expressed in the other place that her amendments were so tightly drawn that they could have encompassed even the Archbishop of York, because he spends a lot of his time working in the community, not just proclaiming the liturgy. Being positive, and now that the Government are not overturning their defeats, can we take it that the Government now accept the principle that the Churches must be allowed to regulate their own clergy according to their own conscience?
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. We never sought to, or indeed even unintentionally, propose non-discrimination laws covering bishops, rabbis, archbishops or priests. In the 2003 non-discrimination employment regulations, we explicitly allowed for an exemption for those involved in religious ministry, so I am sorry that he has taken the opportunity to spread a misapprehension. There was never an intention—and nor is there an intention—to apply the provisions to those involved in religious ministry. However, if a church, synagogue or mosque is hiring a cleaner, bookkeeper or finance officer, it will have to comply with the normal, non-discrimination provisions of employment, like all others. I hope that, instead of spreading misapprehension, he will reassure those who raised that concern with him that it never was the Government’s intention to make that change. The amendment simply clarified the difference between a religious and non-religious job, and whatever the criticisms of the drafting, which I do not accept, nobody could think that it would say that being Archbishop of Canterbury was not a religious job.
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Given that the right hon. and learned Lady clearly believes in its continued importance and relevance in today’s world, may we have a debate in Government time on papal infallibility?
Ms Harman: That is not a matter for the House. What are matters for the House are public policy and legislative scrutiny, and what is a matter for the Government is to ensure that, although we respect the fact that some areas of religion must be subject to the control and decisions of those religions, for the rest, religious organisations, like everyone else, obey the law.