Doing the right thing

Glenys ThorntonGlenys Thornton on Peers’ attempts to defend and expand equalities legislation

Further consideration of the shambles that is the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill takes place in the Lords today, with a focus on proposals that are a systematic undermining of the UK’s equalities infrastructure.

It is strongly rumoured that Conservatives in the Coalition government would have much preferred to abolish the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) outright. Instead they are bamboozling the LibDems to kill the EHRC by degrees. Proposals in the ERR Bill, combined with vicious budget cuts and reductions in expertise lead in one direction only – lack of effective protection for people harassed, discriminated against and victimised. The UK’s international gold standard equalities is being degraded and undermined by political spite and prejudice.

The issues being considered today seek to reverse the government’s proposed changes. But Peers are also offering a positive opportunity through amendments that seek to improve the national equalities framework, in the shape of Equality Impact Assessment, and the need to protect the independence of the EHRC by making it more accountable to Parliament.

Clause 57 of the Bill seeks to repeal the general duties of the EHRC, effectively removing duties to promote good relations between different groups. This mission statement was put into the 2006 Equality Act, with support from Liberal Democrat peers. Crossbencher Jane Campbell is now leading the charge to reverse this attack. The EHRC has been bullied into changing their policy on this and saying it does not matter, but it’s possible that the Lords may take a different view.

Labour will also oppose Clauses 58, which repeals the provision in the 2010 Equality Act that makes an employer liable for repeated harassment of their employees by third parties (including customers, clients and service users); as well as Clause 59, which repeals the question and answer procedure allowing somebody who thinks they may have been unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised to obtain information from the person (employer or service provider) they think has acted unlawfully.  

Lord Lester leads the latter amendment, highlighting that this procedure has been a vital part of ensuring access to justice for victims of discrimination since our first Sex Discrimination and Race Relations Acts were passed nearly 40 years ago. Information obtained through this process is intended to help an individual understand why they have been treated in a particular way and whether there is a legal basis for making or continuing a claim in a court or tribunal. 

In addition, we will take the opportunity presented by the ERR Bill to press Ministers to act on caste discrimination. A number of studies confirm the caste system exists in the UK, and the associated lack of caste mobility is not consistent with the Cameron government’s position of encouraging a more cohesive society.

Since Grand Committee on the Bill there has been a meeting between Justice Minister Helen Grant and the Anti Caste Discrimination Campaign – two years too late. As a result, the government has issued an inadequate statement that stops a long way short of dealing the legal lacuna in the legislation. In effect however, they admit such discrimination exists but do not intend to do anything effective about it. Needless to say we have joined forces across the House – with Crossbencher Lord Harries, LibDem Lord Avebury and Conservative Lord Deben – to add ‘caste’ to the definition of race in Clause 9 of the 2010 Act. 

Good on Lords Avebury and Lester for the respective stances they are taking. So let’s hope enough of their LibDem colleagues do the right thing today, and back these various amendments defending and expanding equalities legislation. To not do so, would be to merely fall in behind a predictable Tory right-wing agenda. 

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the Lords

Published 4th March 2013

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