Amendment 20 proposed to delete the term 'or philosophical' from the Equality Bill meaning of Belief.
I happened to be attending the BETTS Education exhibition in Olympia yesterday and en route, I took the tube to Westminster (having lost and regained my Trilby hat which blew off onto the tube line at Embankment!).
I went to House of Lords Committee Room 3a at 3.30pm on 13 January 2010 but was advised by the Clerk, after entering the empty Committee Room (a room about 20' x 20' square), that the committee had withdrawn for the day. Actually I missed the meeting; they came back half an hour later and the Equality Bill Amendment 20 was discussed at 4.10pm.
Baroness Warsi said 'We have tabled this amendment in order to probe what exactly will be included in religion or belief as is used in this Bill.' What she seems to mean by this was whether Church of Scientology, which is a philosophy, would be deemed eligible for certain tax exemptions such as non-domestic tax rates for religious buildings. The Humanist Baroness Thornton said this amendment was a 'probing amendment' (MPs may put down a probing amendment, which means they want to know what the Government's thinking is on a particular clause, rather than necessarily wanting to change the clause.) . 'Matters of philosophical belief have been protected under domestic legislation since the first definition of religion or belief introduced by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003' said Baroness Thornton.
After objections from British Humanist Association members Baroness Turner of Camden & Baroness Thornton, the amendment, to exclude 'or philosophical', was withdraw by Baroness Warsi at around 4.30pm.
Report of minutes in Hansard (copied below in full).
Baroness Warsi: My Lords, this amendment effectively leaves out the words "or philosophical" from the definition of religion or belief. We have tabled this amendment in order to probe what exactly will be included in religion or belief as is used in this Bill. Part of the reason for the great welcome which this Bill received when it entered your Lordships' House was that it consolidates and helps to simplify a very complicated area of legislation.
In keeping with this theme, it is therefore necessary to maintain the utmost clarity when defining the terms of what is included under a protected characteristic. The Explanatory Notes are very helpful in this area. They explain that this is a very
- "broad definition in line with the freedom of thought, conscience and religion guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights".
and that this will include denominations or sects within a particular religion, and those beliefs such as humanism or atheism.
This appears simple and to provide an adequate description for the purposes of the Bill. The examples show that while such belief systems as Rastafarianism, Sikhism, Christianity and atheism would all be included under the definition, adherence to a particular football team, for example, would not. However, fears have been expressed that there are unintended consequences stemming from this definition. It would be very useful if the Minister could inform the House whether this would be the case.
As the law stands, places of worship are eligible for complete exemption from business rates, and ministers of religion can get significant discounts or even possible exemptions from council tax. Sects such as scientology, which was defined as a philosophical belief rather than the worship of a deity, were, however, ruled not to be included in this bracket. This judgment was passed in the 1970 Court of Appeal case, where because of its definition as a philosophical rather than a religious belief, scientology was deemed not eligible for the same tax breaks.
Since that case there have been many Parliamentary Questions which have allowed this particular ruling to be stated again and again. On 28 October 2009 in another place, Robert Neill asked the Government about the application of non-domestic rates to religious buildings used for public religious faith worship. Barbara Follett, who answered for the Government, included in her reply that the exemption does not extend to organisations which practise a philosophy.
Perhaps the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but it does appear at the moment that the Bill would undermine this court ruling, and set us in a situation whereby philosophical beliefs in fact would also be included under that exemption. The Bill and the Explanatory Notes state clearly that a philosophical belief is also included. Furthermore, the Bill imposes a duty on public authorities which prohibits discrimination, harassment or victimisation by people who supply services or perform public functions. The Explanatory Notes state that this also applies to revenue raising and collection. Can the Minister therefore clarify whether this will mean that those premises used for scientology meetings would undermine the 1970 definition so far that this would mean that the Church of England and the Church of Scientology would have to be treated in the same way for tax purposes? Does she agree that this sends out a difficult message to the public, because, at a time when families and local businesses are really struggling, as bills rocket, scientologists will soon be eligible for more tax breaks? Most people are in favour of freedom of expression, but it is difficult to maintain this when, at such a difficult time, it seems also to extend to tax breaks.
I look forward to the Minister's response and hope very much that we will receive greater clarity about exactly what the inclusion of "philosophical belief" will mean in practice. I beg to move.
Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will not agree to this amendment. I am a member of the British Humanist Association. I gather that it believes that the exclusion of philosophy from the Bill would be damaging to it. The association thinks that it is necessary to protect its existence, in the same way that it is willing to agree to the protection of people from a number of religious beliefs. Does my noble friend accept that including "philosophical" would enable the Humanist Association to regard itself as protected? "Philosophical" would also protect people who have no belief at all. The association to which I belong has a certain set of beliefs, and believes that it would be protected by including "philosophy" in the Bill.
Baroness Thornton: The amendment concerns matters of religion or belief and would prevent beliefs of a philosophical nature being protected under domestic legislation. There are several reasons why we would resist this amendment, which, I realise was a probing amendment.
First, matters of philosophical belief have been protected under domestic legislation since the first definition of religion or belief introduced by the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003. Since its introduction, this form of protection has never been a cause for concern in either the extensive consultation leading up to the introduction of the Bill or its scrutiny. Since its parliamentary introduction, no opinion has been expressed that appropriate philosophical beliefs should not be protected.
Secondly, removing protection for philosophical beliefs would mean that acceptable and long-recognised belief systems such as humanism would no longer be protected under law. I am sure that many here in this House would not wish for that-not only those who have humanist beliefs, but those who recognise and appreciate the right of others to be protected for holding that belief. I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Humanist Group.
It is true that our European legal obligations that relate to matters of religion or belief, such as the employment framework directive- Council Directive 2000/78/EC- do not attempt to define specifically what the terms religion or belief mean. However, European case law has determined that among the relevant factors that need to be taken into consideration as to whether something can be considered to be a valid religion or belief is that such beliefs must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, provided that the beliefs are worthy of respect in a democratic society, are not incompatible with human dignity and do not conflict with the fundamental rights of others. They must also be beliefs as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour and not an opinion based on the present state of information available.
As regards the issue of scientology and the question about building ratings-the noble Baroness asked a legitimate question-the Bill does not change the current situation. There is a statutory authority exception in relation to public functions which would cover tax relief on religious buildings. I hope that that satisfies the noble Baroness on that particular question.
Ultimately, whether or not something can be considered to be a valid religion or belief for protection under domestic legislation is a matter for the courts. Therefore, irrespective of the immediate effects of the amendment, our domestic courts would be obliged to take European case law into account. This is likely to mean that philosophical beliefs such as humanism would almost inevitably be considered to be worthy of protection by the law and thus negate the effect of the amendment. I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw it.
Baroness Butler-Sloss: For the past 30 years at least, the Church of Scientology has not been accepted as a church. I did not understand from the Minister's answer whether the way in which Clause 10 is set out will change that situation.
Baroness Thornton: No. I thought I made it clear in my remarks to the noble and learned Baroness that this does not change the situation.
The Lord Bishop of Chichester: I, too, would like to resist this amendment. The inclusion of the word "philosophy" is really rather important-for religious people as well. The distinction between religion and philosophy could be too sharply drawn. In the Explanatory Notes, paragraph 71 talks about religion or belief having,
It then uses some rather general, catch-all descriptions like "Catholics" and "Protestants". Belief systems are much more complex than are reducible to simple denominational or institutional forms. "Philosophy" here introduces into the scope of the law that degree of freedom for recognising that people actually occupy a number of different positions in relation to the wider belief system in which they find themselves. I therefore wish to resist this amendment.
Baroness Warsi: I thank the Minister for her reply. I am heartened to hear the position in relation to exemptions for tax purposes and am thankful to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for requesting clarification on the Church of Scientology. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.