The Government acknowledge that Caste discrimination in the UK is a fact. But they were not convinced that legislation against it was necessary until April, when they agreed reluctantly to make caste a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act. They appeared to be converted after suffering two defeats on the issue in the Lords and running out of time to complete their programme for the session that was about to end.
But since then, Equality Minister Helen Grant has said plainly that she doesn’t agree with the proposal, defying the Cabinet Office Code which says that once a decision is made, Ministers have to support it.
She has ignored requests for a meeting with organisations representing the Dalits, the potential victims of caste discrimination.
When she did meet peers on May 14 to discuss progress on implementing the provision which had been agreed by Parliament, she said she had been too busy with same-sex marriage to think about it.
But she found time to see a large delegation from anti-legislation groups.
The day the Lords rose for the summer recess, the Government finally published their timetable for implementing the new law. It had been pushed into the long grass, with no opportunity for the Lords to comment until October.
First there will be research programmes by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) lasting six months. This will provide a definition of caste, and provide a baseline on the extent of caste discrimination, for comparison with the situation in five years’ time.
Only after that work has been done will the first set of consultations be held, starting in March 2014. There is no objective reason why the two processes shouldn’t have been conducted in parallel.
In the summer of 2014 the Government will analyse the responses and engage with employers, public authorities and the judiciary, who they say will lack familiarity with caste. But everybody will know about the public sector equality duty, which came into force more than two years ago.
The Government will than respond to the consultation and draft an Affirmative Order.to be published in the autumn of 2014.
There will then be a second consultation on the Order itself, surely an unnecessary exercise when presumably it will have taken into account the first consultation just completed. That will end in February 2015, and a further Government response will follow.
The final Order will be laid before Parliament in the summer of 2015, after the general election. That was no doubt in accordance with the instructions from Tory ministers.
The objectives of this long drawn out process include ‘determining the appropriateness of caste legislation’, a question that will figure in both consultations. The Government will be hoping that the anti-legislation lobby will raise a deafening chorus of opposition.
They could then refrain from laying the Order, and the proposal would be dead.
Inevitably, this politicises the question of caste discrimination. Since there is no certainty about the process and it reaches a climax around polling day 2015, it is bound to figure in the manifestos of all three Parties. The Tories may gain a few votes by the delay from people belonging to higher castes, but the 400,000 Dalits in the UK will have their say at last.
See also Mary Reid’s earlier comment: Conservatives block moves to outlaw caste discrimination
* Eric Lubbock, Lord Avebury, is a working peer, and Vice-Chair, Parliamentary Human Rights Group. He blogs here.