Opinion: A letter to Nick Clegg on the General Equality Duty

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Dear Nick,

I am writing on behalf of the Social Liberal Forum to urge that Lib Dem MPs vote tomorrow to uphold the decision of the Upper House to support the retention of Section 3 of the 2006 Equality Act.  Today the Equality and Human Rights Commission itself issued a statement supporting its retention. In making this request we are adding our voices to those of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and the Lib Dem Disability Association, and several Lib Dem peers.

On 4th March several Lib Dem peers joined colleagues across the floor to successfully vote through a motion to retain the General Equality Duty – enshrined in the 2006 Equality Act – which provides an essential mission statement for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to work towards the elimination of discrimination in society.

This General Equality Duty represents the commitment not just of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to dedicate itself to the goal of achieving equality in reality but for the whole of Britain’s public services and Government.

The intention of Government to abolish this mission statement sends out all the wrong signals about the Coalition’s commitment to tackling discrimination against all sections of society that experience prejudice, racism, sexism, homophobia, age discrimination and so on, and this has a knock-on effect on the reputation of our own party.

If Britain’s equalities watchdog – the body responsible for upholding and enforcing equalities legislation – is no longer dedicated to the goal of abolishing discrimination then Britain’s 40,000 public authorities will similarly feel they no longer have to prioritise equality in service delivery.

The General Equality Duty is not bureaucracy. It does not require a single additional form to fill in, and therefore should not have been included in the Red Tape Challenge reforms contained in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. Nor is its proposed repeal a ‘tidying up exercise’ as ministers have claimed; abolishing a mission statement cannot sensibly be regarded as ‘tidying up’. The General Equality Duty came about a result of hard fought rights following the tragedy of the Stephen Lawrence case and as such it is an important part of the legacy of the fight for justice; a point Doreen Lawrence articulated when she wrote to you and Prime Minister David Cameron last November.

As Liberal Democrats we have our own mission statement in the preamble to our party’s constitution. As you know, this informs our philosophy and acts as a guide to our policies. It provides a common purpose and paints a vision for the kind of society we wish to see. Indeed most corporate enterprises also have a mission statement.

The Social Liberal Forum applauds the commitment to equality enshrined in the Coalition Agreement. We also applaud your statement in the Scarman Lecture that “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.”

Social Liberal Forum believes that that these commitments to equality will be undermined if Lib Dem MPs fail to support their colleagues in the Lords and vote to abolish the General Duty.

In 2011 you reassured Jo Swinson that you would ““resist the siren calls to water down the Equality Act” by confirming that there would be “no move to dilute incredibly important protections to enshrine and bolster equality in this country under the guise of dealing with unnecessary or intrusive regulation.”

It is, we argue, the wrong proposal in the wrong Bill that sends the wrong signals to Britain’s public services. Just as importantly, it sends the wrong signals to the public at large about the Coalition’s commitment to equality.

Abolishing the Duty would hand our opponents a gift to build a narrative that our party is rolling back the equalities framework of Britain and is not overly concerned about tackling discrimination. This narrative is already developing as a result of other changes to equalities laws and funding cuts to the EHRC that is hugely disproportionate to cuts to other areas of public expenditure.

As Liberal Democrats we stand for building a fairer society. The proposal by Government before the House tomorrow, to overturn the Lords’ will, is incompatible with that aspiration. We urge you to ensure that our MPs support their colleagues in the Upper House tomorrow and vote to maintain the General Equality Duty.

Yours sincerely,

Prateek Buch, Director

Gareth Epps, Co-Chair

Social Liberal Forum

* Gareth Epps is a member of FPC and FCC, a member of the Fair Deal for your Local campaign coalition committee and is an active member of Britain’s largest consumer campaign, CAMRA. He claims to be marginally better at Aunt Sally than David Cameron, whom he stood against in Witney in 2001.

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9 Comments

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 16th Apr '13 - 5:21pm

    It is immensely sad that this article has only been published after the debate was commenced in the House. I am pretty sure that this article was sent into LibDem Voice before, and it would have been useful for our Parliamentarians to have read the article and the subsequent responses.

    As a Party we truly have a long way to go before we can truly say that we are committed to making Britain a Fairer place.

  • Simon Bamonte 16th Apr '13 - 5:27pm

    I agree with this letter entirely, but I hold no hope of LibDem MPs voting the right way on this. The majority will vote whichever way the whips and Tories tell them to. After all, the Tories have always hated nearly every bit of anti-discrimination legislation that remains on the books. If LD MPs vote to abolish the General Duty, it will simply be seen as another coalition attack on the powerless: specifically the disabled who have been campaigning to retain the General Duty.

  • Simon Bamonte 16th Apr '13 - 5:34pm

    R Uduwerage-Perera:
    “As a Party we truly have a long way to go before we can truly say that we are committed to making Britain a Fairer place.”

    Indeed. The vast majority of coalition measures are making Britain a much more un-fair place. ESPECIALLY for the poorest, disabled, and most vulnerable in society. I would say that most-rank-and file members have a commitment to making Britain more fair, but the majority of our MPs seem concerned only with a) their careers and b) keeping the Tories happy. Decisions made democratically at conference are now ignored. The Parliamentary party doesn’t even pretend to pay lip service to conference or average members of the party.

  • Gordon Lishman 16th Apr '13 - 5:50pm

    I was one of the members of the Steering Committee for the 2006 Act and the EHRC. With others, I fought to ensure that the Act contained a general commitment which could be used for reference in helping judges and others to understand the intent of the Act as well as its more detailed and specific provisions. Since then, I have advised on the development of human rights and equalities structures in other countries including South Africa, Australia and Indonesia. Particularly in countries with a shared background in common law, it is important to maintain these sorts of reference points to guiding principles. It is also a quintessentially liberal principle on which I was pleased to have a role in securing the commitment of senior officials and ministers serving the last government. I agree that the message being sent by possible LibDem support for these changes is deeply unhelpful and undermines the core principles which motivate our party and its members.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 16th Apr '13 - 10:01pm

    There is but one more opportunity to thwart the desire of the Tories to undo the years of hard fought for equalities legislation that we have in this country. We must now assist our Peers to realise the benefits of keeping the equalities legislation as was prior to the Tories meddling, and reject their draconian proposals.

    Yes we need a General Duty that sets out the vision, but without such things as equality impact assessments, and the potential to submit questionnaires to employers, etc, the General Duty itself will be merely laudable words.

    I would commend anyone interested in truly “Building a Fairer Britain” to lobby our Peers to save the Liberal Democrat Party from stepping away from its core beliefs in being guardians of the vulnerable, and being party to creating further inequality in society. Without robust equalities legislation we will soon drift back to a bygone period when people were regularly disadvantaged as a result of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and a disability, etc. Do we as a Party really wish to look back post 2015, and see this as our legacy of our partnership with the Tories?

    Please join Baroness Ece and our other courageous Peers in redressing a potential grave mistake that our Party was naively sucked into by our Coalition partners that care more for the profits of a few, than the welfare of us all.

  • David Wilkinson 17th Apr '13 - 4:51am

    Sadly Nick stopped listening to the party’s members several years ago, as each day goes by it a case of which Liberal value the leadership and our MP’s will ditch just to keep the Tories happy.

  • Grammar Police 17th Apr '13 - 8:07am

    I think Gordon Lishman’s point is a good one.

    However, I disagree with the general thrust of this article that repealing s 3 of the 2006 sends the “wrong signals” to public services (much of the press coverage of this issue certainly sends the wrong signals about what is happening. People speaking here and in other places about the “general equality duty being abolished” are simply wrong, and in the case of PCS/Labour etc probably maliciously so).

    The Equality Act 2006, s 3 is the “mission statement” of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It probably doesn’t create any legal rights, although possibly someone could try suing the EHRC for breach of statutory duty under it. The “public sector equality duty” – the legal right that obliges public authorities to

    “(a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act;
    (b) advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it;
    (c) foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.”

    – is contained in the Equality Act 2010, s 149, which is not being repealed or amended.

    It might be worth noting that most of the legal challenges to austerity measures have been brought under s 149 of the 2010 Act. And also that most of these challenges have failed.

  • Martin Frost 18th Apr '13 - 1:22pm

    http://www.unawestminster.org.uk/pdf/unwe_626%20NHRI%20really%20final.pdf

    These issues were debate in some detail in the House of Lords at a meeting of the United Nations Association last November.

    The Government claims that the general duty to promote equality and human rights needs to be deleted on the grounds that it is ‘vague, unrealistic and serves no legal function’. Prof Hepple disagrees. Section 3 does perform a legal function especially in the absence of a purposes clause in the later Equality Act of 2010 that would have allowed the courts to apply interpretative principles. The previous Labour Government refused to agree to this fearing that it
    would lead to the adoption of Optional Protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This measure, opposed by successive Governments, would make equality into an independent human right. Removing Section 3 leaves the law rudderless without the unifying principles. It will encourage inconsistencies in the way in which the law is applied between both equality and other fundamental human rights and also the different strands of discrimination. A situation that equality and human rights advocates had long been seeking to get away from.

    With regard to the PSED (now awaiting the outcome of a review that no one outside Government requested including the EHRC), the following information is worth noting:

    On 11 February 2011 a judgment was handed down in the High Court that found the Secretary of State for Education in breach of the equality duties. It was a case in which the Secretary of State had been challenged by several local authorities about his decision to refuse or discontinue various projects under the Building Schools for the Future programme. The judge held that there had been a breach of the three former equality duties on the basis that the Secretary of State had not considered them when making a decision about the future of these projects against the advice of Theresa May in her capacity as Minister for Women and Equalities. Within five weeks of this judgment, the Government had published a policy review consultation which included revised draft specific duties to make them “less prescriptive” on those subject to the new equality duty.

    In July 2011, the Government announced significant changes to the specific duties stressing the need to remove ‘prescriptive processes’ in order to focus on “outcomes”. The duty to publish Equality Impact Assessments was also removed. This required public bodies to include details of where evidence has been gathered and where all relevant stakeholders have been consulted. These enabled stakeholders to identify whether ‘due regard’ had actually been given and ensured that public bodies established links with ‘hard to reach’ groups that may otherwise have been missed. Therefore robust assessments were guaranteed.

    Finally with regard to references to the PCS/Labour Party position on this – strange bed fellows indeed. It is the Government that has broken the all party consensus on these issues and it has alienated most independent and expert opinion on the process,

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