The British Humanist Association (BHA) has been informed by the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) that they are to stop work on the proposed ‘Charter for Excellence’ for religious groups running publicly funded services, and has expressed its dismay at the move. Humanists were looking to the Charter to ensure that groups based on a religion or belief receiving public money to deliver services would sign an agreement not to discriminate against, or try to convert, service users.
Hanne Stinson, BHA chief executive, explained, ‘The BHA has been working to ensure that any group delivering public services respects the human rights of service users and is bound by equality legislation. We wanted to see a change in legislation which would mean that religion or belief groups would not be allowed to use the licence to discriminate that current equality law allows them, when they are delivering public services. This would prevent them from discriminating against service users or staff when using public money, in exactly the same way that secular organisations are prevented from doing these things.
‘In the absence of a government commitment to close these legal loopholes in the Equality Bill, currently before Parliament, we gave a qualified welcome to the proposed Charter. We did not believe it went far enough to protect service users, but CLG reassured us it would at least ensure that organisations receiving money would have to sign up to equality good practice and promise not to proselytise. Now, even this small safeguard has been lost with the decision to scrap the Charter all together.
‘This means that religious organisations can access large and small public service contracts and deliver services in a discriminatory manner. If, for example, a local authority decided to contact out their housing or health and social care services to such an organisation, these might be delivered in a religious setting, promotion might be refused to existing staff if they are of a different religion or belief to that of the organisation, and service users may find themselves at risk of harassment without protection. Scrapping the Charter means that even the minimal protection against such harm has been lost.’
The BHA has written to CLG ministers John Denham and Shahid Malik regretting the decision. The BHA is also seeking assurances from them that the many problems raised by allowing religious organisations exemptions from equality law at the same time as encouraging them to take on contracts for state-funded public services will now be addressed in another way.
Ms Stinson said that the lack of a ‘Charter’ made amendments to the current Equality Bill absolutely essential, saying that ‘As users of public services, citizens have a right to equal treatment in an environment that respects their dignity and with no discrimination on grounds of religion or belief,’ and she confirmed that the BHA and others would continue to urge government to close the loopholes in the present Equality Bill that allow religious organisations to discriminate even when providing public services ‘We are talking about statutory services to which every individual is entitled on an equal basis’, she continued, ‘surely we are entitled to receive them without fear of discrimination or harassment’.
For more information or comment, contact Hanne Stinson on 07764 947249 or 020 7079 3583.
The British Humanist Association works for inclusive public services with no discrimination in employment or service delivery, and full human rights protection for service users.