The government will not legislate to prevent religious groups providing public services from discriminating against their users, recent responses indicate.
But the coalition is seeking ways to prevent extremist groups taking on local services, suggests a response to parliamentary questions on the government’s proposed ‘Community Right to Bid’.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) says that the government’s assurances do not go far enough, and that the principle of inclusive, secular public services, accessible to all on an equal basis, remains under threat. The BHA has also suggested that the introduction of the public sector equality duty covering religion or belief this week might create religious divisions in public services.
Graham Allen MP quizzed the government on the ‘Community Right to Bid’ aspect of its Localism Bill, a cornerstone of its ‘Big Society’ strategy, asking what measures are in place to protect against religious organisations working under contract discriminating in the provision of services; and how the government would help local authorities to identify and exclude groups with extreme political or social agendas from bidding for and winning public service contracts under the new policy.
In its response, the government stated that under the Equality Act 2010 and other provisions, organisations working under contract will "need to deliver the service in a way which eliminates discrimination, harassment or victimisation of either the service user or potential service user".
It also stated that it was consulting on what grounds there are for refusing a bid from community groups to run public services.
Naomi Phillips, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented:"‘It is hard to believe that when the government says that any organisation running public services will not be able to discriminate, it will actually apply that to religious groups who have been placed at the heart of the localism agenda.
"The government has failed to address the wide exceptions in the Equality Act which actually permit discrimination by religious organisations, even when they are working under contract to provide public services, whether under the ‘Community Right to Bid’ or any other public commissioning process.
"There is no commitment to legislative change to repeal those exceptions from equality law, and words without action means the government’s reassurances amount to very little.
"The wide and unjustified exceptions to allow religious discrimination in public services by religious groups will be compounded by the new public sector equality duty, which came into force this week.
"Under the duty to advance equality of opportunity on grounds of religion or belief, local authorities may feel under pressure to contract with religious groups in preference to inclusive secular groups if they exercise their new ‘right to bid’, in a mistaken attempt to meet the ‘needs’ of faith groups, risking a balkanisation of public services along religious lines," she declared.
The BHA spoksperson continued: "It is a positive step, however, that the government seems aware of the risk of groups such as those with extreme religious agendas bidding for contracts, just as such groups are already seeking to set up ‘Free Schools’. Our own research has shown that, at present, local authorities simply do not record if they are contracting with religious organisations, and so have no way of monitoring or knowing if they are using their legal exemptions to discriminate, or what the ethos of the organisation is. We will be responding in full to the government’s consultation with clear recommendations for action to ensure that public services remain inclusive, secular and free from extremism."