Eric Avebury writes … Caste discrimination in the UK

When the Equality Bill was going through the Lords in 2010, I moved an amendment with LibDem support, giving the Government power to add caste to the list of ‘protected characteristics’, making it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of caste in employment, education and the provision of services.

Baroness Thornton, the Minister dealing with the Bill for the Labour Government, accepted the amendment. But the Government decided that further research was needed, and they gave the job to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR). It reported in December 2010 that there was indeed evidence of caste discrimination in the UK [1].

In the 27 months since then, the Coalition has persistently refused either to activate the power or to say point blank that they will not do so, perhaps bearing in mind the strong views in favour expressed by representatives of the UK’s estimated 860,000 Dalits [2] .

So Lord Harries, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Dalits Group, supported by Baroness Thornton, Lord Deben a Conservative former Minister and myself will ask the Lords to persuade them on March 4.

The Government concede that caste discrimination exists here, but they are not convinced that legislation is the best way of dealing with it.

They claim that there is ‘no consensus of opinion (sic) with regards (sic) to the need for legislative protection against caste discrimination, even amongst those communities potentially most affected by it’.

Minister in the Lords Baroness Verma [3] made this assertion on the basis of representations by two organisations representing higher caste Hindus at a single meeting on March 15, 2011.

When challenged, she said that the expression ‘those communities potentially most affected’ meant not the victims of discrimination, but ‘the wider Hindu and Sikh communities’ [4], although neither then or subsequently had any Sikh organisation been in touch with the Government on the issue. Nor would they; the Guru Nanak, the founder  of the Sikh religion said that ‘In his mother’s womb, no man knows his caste’.

Baroness Verma’s explanation was like saying that ending apartheid in South Africa was wrong because white organisations were opposed to the idea.

To claim that the coverage of this provision would be significantly wider than discrimination against people of the Dalit communities, as another Minister did, [5] would only be valid if there were any evidence of discrimination among the higher castes. There is none, nor has any been alleged.

Recently, Ministers have raised an additional objection: that ‘needless red tape and additional, unnecessary cost burdens for businesses’ might be caused by this provision [6].

Businesses would have to investigate allegations of caste discrimination, as presumably they do already.  As the Minister for Equalities says, ‘we obviously do not think that anyone should suffer prejudice or discrimination, whether it is because of caste or any other characteristic. Such behaviour is wrong and should not be condoned whether or not it is prohibited by legislation’ [7].

If a complaint is made today of alleged discrimination on grounds of caste, it would be the normal duty of the employer, educational establishment or provider of services to conduct an investigation, and to take remedial action if it was proved.

The difference would be, if our motion is carried, that the complainant who is not satisfied with the outcome of the investigation would have the right to take the matter to the law, as with every other protected characteristic. It is only at that stage that extra work is required.

The Prime Minister says that ‘legislation would involve the Government asking every employer, school and service provider in the country to accept potential liability for preventing caste discrimination…’ [8].  But they already have this duty for the other protected characteristics, and it does not appear to have been a significant burden. The Government have not sought to repeal any of the existing characteristics on those grounds.

The Impact Assessment  at the time of the Bill said that the  cost to employers and  providers of goods, facilities and services of making caste a protected characteristic would arise from the number of cases taken to courts and tribunals, including compensation or out of court settlement costs [9]. There would be ‘familiarisation costs’ presumably one-off.

All we are asking Parliament to say is that in the Equality Act, ‘race’ includes caste as well as colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins. The apparent rarity of caste discrimination [10] means that it will seldom cause any additional work at all.

But even if there is only handful of cases, the victims of caste discrimination have the right to legal redress. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination says so; the UN Universal Periodic Review of the UK says so; the UK’s own Equality and Human Rights Commission says so. Now Parliament will have its say.


[1] National Institute for Economic and Social Research, Caste discrimination and harassment in the UK

[2] Dr Raj Chand (Shri Guru Ravidass Sabha UK), Eugene Culas (Voice of Dalit International), Santosh Dass (Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance), Sat Pal Muman (CasteWatchUK), Meena Varma (Dalit Solidarity Network UK), unpublished letter to Helen Grant MP, Equalities Minister, February 8, 2013

[3] Official Report 28 Nov 2911 Col WA12

[4] Baroness Verma, letter to Lord Avebury, February 2, 2012

[5] Lynne Featherstone, letter to Lord Avebury May 17, 2012

[6] Prime Minister, letter to Lord Avebury, January 29, 2013

[7] The Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, letter to Lord Avebury, December 6, 2013

[8] Prime Minister, ibid

[10] NIESR, ibid

 

* Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, is a working peer, and Vice-Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group. He blogs here.

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10 Comments

  • Richard Dean 22nd Feb '13 - 5:02pm

    This is surely a no-brainer? There is no reason for a caste system to persist in the UK – the son of a plumber or the daughter of a carpenter get the same access to knowledge, state education, social services, TV, internet, culture, health and insurance as the son or daughter of a community leader, and so should have the same opportunity of access to jobs and to wealth.

  • I am unable to understand why the government is reluctant to add caste to the list of ‘protected characteristics’ making it illegal to discriminate on the basis on caste when their own research shows that there is an evidence of caste discrimination in the UK. It appears that government ministers are only taking notice of the false propaganda of certain vested interests but ignoring the concerns of the victims of caste discrimination. Law will definitely change the mind set of people and deter them discriminating on the basis of birth. Now the time has come to include caste into the British law so that the victims of caste discrimination are able to get justice.

    Arun Kumar,
    Federation of Ambedkarite & Buddhist Organisation, UK (FABO,UK)

  • I thought caste was within the definition of race already

  • Racism and discrimination should not be permitted in the UK under any guise. I agree with Lord Deben when he said: “The standards of our nation are not up for grabs. If people want to live in this country according to any system they have to accept the fundamental standards that we have.”
    No to caste discrimination – no to racism – yes to equality and protection.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 24th Feb '13 - 8:01am

    I would tend to agree with Arun Kumar that ‘Caste’ should acknowledged as a discriminatory factor, but I would also add the even more prevalent barrier that countless thousands face on a daily basis of ‘Class’ discrimination should also be taken seriously.

    As we are only too aware within politics, a silver spoon appears to be the prerequisite for success, and this is mirrored in the wider society, hence we tend to end up with a lack of diversity of thoughts and beliefs.

    Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera
    English Party Diversity Champion
    Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – Vice Chair

  • Thank you for writing that, Rajun.

  • Harbans Lal Badhan 1st Apr '14 - 10:58am

    Indian Caste System is more dangerous and worse than Racism. Indian Caste System should be banned by the Act of the Parliament, otherwise it will spoil the whole society of the world. Indian Caste System is the enemy of Equality, Liberty and Fraternity. Indian Caste System is also the enemy of Fundamental Rights (Economic, Social, Political, Religious and Educational Rights), Human Rights and Social Equality of an individual. Indian Caste System destroys the spirit of Democracy and Secularism. Indian Caste System is a challenged to the unity of any nation and society.

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