Stop dismantling historical gains made in equalities legislation – Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.
As Chair of Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD), I recently wrote to both Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson, Minister for Equalities (BIS), to express our grave concerns about the damage that will be done to equality in this country, to our image and to the party’s proud record on race equality, if we do not oppose three clauses in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. This Bill is about to go through committee stage in the House of Lords.
The matter concerns clauses 56 to 58 in part 5 of the Bill. In brief, Clause 56 repeals the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) obligation to act with a view to supporting the development of a society in which, among other things, people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination and there is respect for and protection of each individual’s human rights.
It also repeals the duty to promote good relations between members of different groups. This duty is particularly important in relation to race, Gypsies and Travellers, interfaith relations, hate crimes, the causes of violence against women, inter-generational issues and highly stigmatised groups like people with mental health problems or HIV/AIDS. There are important issues that need to be tackled in these areas and no other statutory body has a remit to tackle them. Clause 56 would even abolish the duty to promote or encourage the favourable treatment of disabled persons. Why on earth would Liberal Democrats be supporting the abolition of this?
Clause 57 removes protection from third party harassment. Many, many ethnic minorities and women are in public-facing roles and they need this protection. This protection means that employers have to take ‘reasonable’ steps to protect their employees. Decent employers have nothing to lose from this provision as they do this anyway through best practice.
Section 58 abolishes the questionnaire procedure that people can use prior to taking a discrimination case to a tribunal. There is widespread opposition to its abolition, including from the judiciary, as it saves money by deterring ill-founded litigation. This has been in place since 1975 and is widely regarded by employers, employees and many others as sensible and extremely useful.
EMLD wholeheartedly supports the clause in the Coalition Agreement that states there are: “Too many people of all ages held back because of their gender, race, religion or sexuality. We need concerted government action to tear down these barriers and help to build a fairer society.” We also support the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution which states: “Upholding these values of individual and social justice, we reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race, colour, religion, age, disability, sex or sexual orientation and oppose all forms of entrenched privilege and inequality.” It adds: “We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals”.
EMLD applauded Nick Clegg’s Scarman lecture last year in which he stated: “Our equalities legislation is considered the best in Europe and has transformed discrimination in the workplace. The Equality Act is a cornerstone of the UK’s culture of fairness. It isn’t there for employers to pick and choose from. And it is not going away.”
The Conservative proposals in clauses 56-58 currently in the House of Lords are a direct challenge to the body and thrust of the Scarman speech – a speech incidentally, which lifted the hearts of many ethnic minorities both within and outside the party. These proposals, and the current attempt to weaken the Public Sector Equality Duty through the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, are in breach of the Coalition Agreement – indeed they fly in the face of the party’s own ideals around equality.
Our party and Nick personally have a proud record of fighting for equality. EMLD has congratulated him for setting up the Race Equality Task Force which has now finished its first report, and which is in the process of being amended before receiving a personal foreward from Nick.
The Task Force Report contains a 20,000-word analysis of the current situation facing ethnic minorities in education and employment and among its 35 recommendations is a resounding call, echoing Nicks own words above, to defend the Equality Act and oppose Conservative attempts to weaken the EHRC.
EMLD has already moved forward with drafting a motion to Spring Conference welcoming this; it is organising a special conference supporting it in February in London with Social Liberal Forum and there will be a major fringe meeting at Spring Conference.
EMLD are asking that we take urgent action with regard to the Conservative proposals. There is enough evidence in the Task Force Report and sufficient new information and Liberal Democrat analysis to justify our party in Parliament opposing all three clauses and not merely abstaining. At the same time, there is a growing awareness of the dangers lurking in the small print of this Bill among both of our Parliamentary groups – Baroness Meral Hussain Ece and Lord Dholakia are both leading calls within the party to think again.
The EMLD membership and many other Liberal Democrats are telling us that we must protect the many gains that equality campaigners have made over the past fifty years and that equality is a red line that cannot be crossed.
As the Coalition Minister responsible for the Bill, Jo Swinson recently wrote a blog on Lib Dem Voice which articulated her position – you can also view the responses from party members which show an overwhelming rejection of the planned changes being proposed – the best way to support our ministers is by party members offering them the right advice at the right time.
Chair – Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD)