Equality matters

Glenys ThorntonGlenys Thornton highlights why Ministers are out of touch on the importance of existing equalities legislation

It is no great surprise that the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (ERR) Bill is a shambles of incoherent measures that provides no compelling vision, no consistent message and no connected approach to drive growth. We’re getting used to that with David Cameron’s government. But perhaps less expected is that Clauses 56, 57 and 58 of the ERR Bill are a systematic undermining of the UK’s equalities infrastructure. And this has not gone unnoticed by the international community.

Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has admitted that the measures relating to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will have no significant impact on business growth. We can only conclude that the attacks on equalities measures are motivated by dogma amounting to the government’s failure to recognise the value of what is a strong and independent institution. As well as seeking to reverse the planned changes, our amendments also offer a positive opportunity to improve our national Equalities framework.

Clause 56 seeks, amongst other things, to repeal the role of the EHRC – effectively removing duties to promote good relations between different groups. That mission statement was put into the 2006 legislation by the Lords, and allows the EHRC to take a broad look at issues, for example hates crimes or racism in football. But the diminution plus the dramatic cut in budget for the EHRC will combine to undermine its UN-recognised status at an A-rated Human Rights body. So, Crossbencher Baroness Campbell and I will both seek to reverse this attack and safeguard the future of the EHRC once and for all, by making it accountable to Parliament rather than the whims of government.

We will also oppose Clauses 57 and 58. 

The former repeals the provision in the Equality Act 2010 making an employer liable for repeated harassment of their employees by third parties (including customers, clients and service users). 

The latter repeals the question and answer procedure which allows someone who thinks they may have been unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised seek to obtain information from the person (employer or service provider) they think has acted unlawfully against them. This procedure has been vital in 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 this way is intended to help individuals understand why they were treated in a particular way and whether they have a legal basis for making or continuing a claim in a court or tribunal. And the government’s own Red Tape Challenge consultation includes not one concern about the questionnaire procedure.

Labour amendments to delete both of these two clauses are supported by Crossbenchers and also the LibDems, including Lord Lester who was party to the introduction of these rights in the original 1975 legislation.

In addition, we are taking the opportunity presented by this Bill to press Ministers to act on the issue of caste discrimination. A number of studies confirm that the caste system exists in the UK and the associated lack of caste mobility is not consistent with the government’s position of encouraging a more cohesive society. We have therefore tabled an amendment to add ‘caste’ to the definition of race in Clause 9 of the 2010 Act – the power we included when in government. This new proposal has attracted the support of two prominent Crossbenchers, Lords Harries and Crisp, and the doughty LibDem campaigner Lord Avebury.

It is widely known that this misnamed Bill is neither enterprising nor adds anything to regulatory reform. What is less understood is that the Bill also seeks to set back the UK equalities agenda, with the price for doing so paid by working people, women, the BAME community, the old, people with disabilities and the LGBT community – all of whom need the protection and support of robust legislation. The problem with Ministers however, is they’re so out of touch they just don’t get it.

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

Published 9th January 2013

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