On Monday 4 March, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, a renowned and respected disability rights campaigner, tabled an amendment, to which I included my name and support, opposing the Government’s proposal to repeal the ‘General Duty’ of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, arguing that doing so will fundamentally change the purpose, role and scope for the only equality and human rights statutory organisation in the UK.
The General Duty says that the EHRC ‘shall discharge its functions with a view to encouraging and supporting a society in which:
.. people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination, there is respect for and protection of each individual’s human rights, there is respect for the dignity and worth of each individual, each individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society, and there is mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights
With which part of this do we as Liberal Democrats disagree? – it’s all enshrined in the Preamble to our Constitution.
The Government argued, that this General Duty was ‘irrelevant, and not necessary, and would make no difference to the Commission’s work.”
Many of us argued that these aims unify equality and human rights into a single vision, making clear that the Commission’s role extends beyond law enforcement to seeking to help foster progressive cultural change in society.
Many of us who have spent many years of our professional and political lives campaigning for greater equalities made representations to Ministers on this issue, and held many meetings.
EMLD and the LDDA, have written to Ministers making the strong case as to why this is not the time to be weakening any commitment to promote equalities.
As a former Commissioner, I sat through many difficult Board meetings where we agreed successive cuts, as other public bodies have done. It’s fair to say the EHRC has taken more than its fair share of cuts losing some £20m funding, and its staffing levels down by 200. Its grants programme has been cut, saving £10m, and the Helpline is now administered by the Government’s Equalities Office. Savings of £2m were successfully made on redundant offices inherited from the predecessor organisations, the Disability Rights Commission, the Commission for Race Equality, and the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Given all this, this question as to why the Government were determined to remove the General Duty, was never satisfactorily answered.
The result was that common sense prevailed, and after an excellent debate, the Lords voted to keep the General Duty.
This was an unnecessary defeat for the Government, on an issue of principle, which costs nothing, but means everything to those of us passionately committed to more equality and commitment to human rights, not less.