The government will not legislate to prevent religious groups providing public services from discriminating against service users but it 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) has said 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 stated that the introduction of the public sector equality duty covering religion or belief this week might create religious divisions in public services.
BHA supporter 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. (See notes section below for full text of the questions and written answers).
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.'
Ms Phillips 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.'
Written answers, 5th April 2011
Community Development: Religion
Mr Allen: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government what legislative and other provisions provide that religious organisations which win contracts to deliver public services under his proposed community right to challenge do not discriminate in the provision of such services. 
Andrew Stunell [holding answer 4 April 2011]: Under the Equality Act 2010 any organisation delivering a service-whether following a procurement exercise under the community right to challenge or otherwise-will need to deliver the service in a way which eliminates discrimination, harassment or victimisation of either the service user or potential service user. Delivering to a person a service which is of less quality or delivering it in a manner or on terms not usually provided to the general public would also constitute an offence.
As public authorities, relevant authorities under the Community Right to Challenge will also need to have regard to this Act and in particular to these considerations in commissioning, procuring and monitoring services-whether this occurs as a result of the right to challenge, or otherwise. They will want to ensure that contracts they enter into for service provision include adequate safeguards to enable them to meet these obligations and others, such as arise under the Human Rights Act.
Mr Allen: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government if he will bring forward legislative proposals to provide that expressions of interest in the provision of public services under his proposed community right to challenge may not be accepted from groups with extreme political or social agendas; and if he will take steps to assist relevant authorities in identifying and excluding such groups from the bidding process. 
Andrew Stunell [holding answer 4 April 2011]: Local authorities must comply with all relevant legislation including equalities and human rights legislation when exercising their functions. This will apply to the exercise of functions by a relevant authority that may arise under, or be related to, the proposed community right to challenge, in particular, the procuring and monitoring of services.
We are currently consulting on proposals for implementing the community right to challenge, including the statutory grounds on which an expression of interest may be rejected by a relevant authority, and whether there are issues on which the department should provide guidance. This is available on our website at:
For further comment or information, contact Naomi Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 07540 257101.
Read more about the BHA's work www.humanism.org.ukMore Articles by Humanists UK ...