Equalities – how the ‘General Duty’ was saved

It was fitting that, on the 20th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence, the government decided to listen to campaigners and save a key element of our equalities laws.

Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) played a leading role in the campaign to save Section 3 of the 2006 Equality Act which provides a vision and mission statement for Britain’s equality watchdog.

This is known as the ‘general duty’ and both informs the work of the watchdog – the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – which itself is responsible for setting the standard for the rest of our public services.

That is why the issue was more than symbolic. It is also an indicator of how committed the government is to equality and encapsulates the need for cultural change rather than just enforcing the law.

Earlier this week the House of Lords rejected government plans, contained in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, to scrap the general duty after peers voted to keep it for the second time in just over a month. Lib Dem Equalities minister Jo Swinson, to her credit, recognised that opposition to the coalition plans was resolute and getting stronger by the day. We are delighted that she has now decided to keep this piece of equality law.

The development was significant as the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has rarely backed down on legislation once Bills are debated.

It is worth noting that while our peers were willing to defy a three-line whip over this issue – seventeen Lib Dems rebelled this week – just four of our MPs stood up for equality in the Commons with one notable abstention.

We are glad that ministers eventually saw sense and decided to pull back from any further dismantling of equalities legislation that is the envy of Europe.

Our equality laws have been won over the past 50 years through much struggle and campaigning by ordinary people, and in particular by BAME communities. EMLD has played a critical role in this campaign through the support of many Lib Dem members and Parliamentarians. However, we still have a long way to go to ensure that we protect existing legislation and support EHRC to become a more effective public sector regulator of the Equalities Act 2010.

We offer our deep gratitude and for the leadership role played by Baroness Meral Hussain-Ece in working with us and in campaigning tirelessly in Parliament to keep the General Duty.

Our peers also rebelled for a second time on the issue of caste discrimination. Swinson has also conceded on this matter and included caste as a sub-category of race so that Dalits and other ‘lower caste’ people from the Indian sub-continent have recourse to the law over prejudice and ill-treatment as a result of their background.

As a party we now need to move forward on equality rather than just engage in rearguard actions to prevent existing laws being scrapped.

* Issan Ghazni is Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and former National Diversity Adviser for the Liberal Democrats. Issan blogs here

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10 Comments

  • If our equalities legislation is the envy of Europe then why don’t they just adopt similar/identical legislation?

    If we accept that drug laws drive drug taking underground, anti-prostitution laws drive prostitution underground then what do we think equalities legislation does?

    I’m not arguing against our equalities laws as such but I think it’s hard to argue that they make much real difference, other than “sending a message”. Personally, I’d rather racists/homophobes/misogynists et al acted like they really believed and society shunned them, rather than making them act nice in public. A problem hidden is not a problem solved.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 26th Apr '13 - 10:51am

    Excellent news Issan,

    But let’s not forget that it was a Lib Dem government’s legislation that the Peers overturned. Yet another reason, as if they needed one, for Lib Dem MPs to give up their demeaning coalition with the Tories.

  • Equality in the UK? Preposterous!

  • David Allen 26th Apr '13 - 6:32pm

    “I’d rather racists/homophobes/misogynists et al acted like they really believed and society shunned them, rather than making them act nice in public.”

    It’s the bit about “and society shunned them” that doesn’t work. We used to allow people to display vacancy notices which said “No Coloureds”. The fact that this was legal, and the notices stayed on display, clearly indicated that society did not shun them. When it became illegal, that was when society showed that henceforth it would shun them.

  • Meral Hussein Ece 27th Apr '13 - 3:53pm

    I cannot take credit in what was very much a joint effort to ensure the government saw sense and gave up on insisting on the removal of the General Duty, Section 3 of the Equality Act. Quite simply the argument which I initially heard civil servants roll out, which Ministers used, – that the GD was ‘ too wider ranging and was preventing the Equality and Human Rights Commissiom from focussing on it remit’ failed to convince the majority of Peers, and i include Tory Peers. This should never have been included in the ‘Red Tape Challenge’ or feature in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. Special credit must go to my colleague in the House of Lords, Crossbencher, and tireless disability campaigner, Baroness Campbell. She worked tirelessly, and did a fantastic job. Also committed equality campaigners, Neil Crowther, and Jenny White, who were extremely supportive. I am of course grateful to Lib Dem Peers, who voted to retain the GD, and to EMLD for all it did to stand up for the principles which are enshrined in the Equality Act, and lobby MPs and Peers.
    It’s a pity this piece of equalities legislation was deemed surplus to requirement at a time when we need to redouble our efforts to ensure a more equal society, when so many feel marginalised and excluded.

  • Simon Banks 28th Apr '13 - 9:08pm

    Thomas: let me explain. Laws to stop things are there to stop damaging behaviour. For example, laws against burglary do indeed drive it underground, but the consensus seems to be that there’s less burglary than if it was legal. Laws against burglary don’t outlaw wanting to nick something. Covetousness is not a crime. Theft is. Equality law is just the same. It bans discriminatory actions. Thus legal action can be taken against someone who refuses someone a job or a service on grounds of race, gender etc.. It is true that whereas once people might openly have said, “You can’t have the flat because you’re black”, they might now find excuses, but it’s harder to find excuses. There is solid evidence that banning such discrimination does often lead to a decline in the discrimination, the supply of rented accommodation being a good example.

    What is being driven underground, of course, is the open expression of prejudice – but that would rarely have been illegal anyway.

    Your analogy also assumes that people given to discriminatory or hate-driven behaviour are driven by a compulsion similar to addiction and, crucially, that discrimination is a marketable substance whose value will increase hugely if it is banned. That’s the main reason why the “war on drugs” has been counter-productive. None of that applies to discrimination and hate-driven behaviour.

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