The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) would never have become a valued and respected national institution if it was allowed to continue on the path it was on. Labour’s tired old way of working was turning equalities into a burden. When people heard the word equality they also heard bureaucracy and red-tape. Instead of being about fairness it was more about frustration.
If Labour’s method of ticking boxes and filling out forms led to equality, then why did they leave behind a society with so much inequality across the board? Twenty percent wage gaps between women and men, nonexistent social mobility, unfair pensions, and a poorly funded education system that let so many children down. The way to tackle these issues in order to create a liberal, equal society is certainly not with careless, short term thinking – equality can’t be brought about solely in bureaucratic ways. Equality Impact Assessments (EIA) exemplify this: popular because they’re the easiest way for departments to comply with equality duties. EIAs are not under threat from the Coalition Government but they are a good example of why we need to move beyond a slapdash exercise at the end of the process and make sure equality is rooted in from the beginning.
Clause 56 to 59 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill will make a number of changes to the EHRC. For those of you with concerns, like Nick has said the Equality Act isn’t being watered down and it isn’t going anywhere. What we are doing is redefining the role of the EHRC and focussing its efforts so that it becomes a strong independent body. It was bogged down with so many vague and unnecessary provisions. It had never submitted a clean set of books when we came to office. It was criticised by both the Public Accounts Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights. In March 2011, we set out proposals to reform the EHRC and almost 1,000 responses were received with most people unhappy with its performance. So we’re making changes to transform the EHRC into an effective, financially accountable body that Liberal Democrats can be proud of.
And there is already much work on equalities to be proud of. Our record on equality speaks for itself. We have established the first ever Inter-Ministerial Group on Equality; legislated to allow civil partnerships on religious premises; published the first ever transgender action plan; introduced support for disabled people seeking access to elected office; established the Women’s Business Council; provided support for women to set up and grow their own businesses; taken action to promote equal pay and championed equality on company boards. Not to mention Nick’s work on social mobility, Steve’s pension reform and Sarah’s pupil premium. Much good work has already been done and of course more remains to do, not least delivering equal marriage – a momentous step for Liberal Democrats who have long campaigned for equal rights.
As Liberal Democrats we don’t think equalities should be about ticking-boxes and regulatory hoops – it’s too important to be relegated to an administrative duty. Advancing LGBT, gender, disability and race equality will only be achieved by putting equalities at the heart of every department. A 21st century inclusive approach with less rules and more fairness.
From the policies that we adopt at conference to the measures we put in place at council level and Westminster, equality should be embedded in everything we do. That’s what party members and voters expect from our party.
* Jo Swinson was Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire from 2005-15 and was a Minister in the Department Business, Innovation and Skills and Equalities Minister from 2012-15