The former race equality adviser to Nick Clegg wrote in The Backbencher magazine that she “still hasn’t heard a rational reason” why ministers are seeking to strip Britain’s equality watchdog with the duty to promote good community relations and tackle racism.
A respected union figure recently wrote that society owes it to the memory of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence not to weaken race laws.
Baroness Hussein Ece and four other party members, including myself, met the Liberal Democrat leader last night to raise concerns about a clause in the Enterprise and Regulatory Bill which would axe the ‘general duty’ of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to work towards race equality.
Clegg and David Cameron recently wrote to Doreen Lawrence attempting to reassure her that race equality was still on the agenda after the mother of Stephen Lawrence told The Guardian of her disappointment at coalition policies twenty years after her son’s racist murder.
Government ministers claim they are “tidying up” equalities legislation and that the general duty is merely an “aspirational” statement, but speaking in the House of Lords last Wednesday Baroness Hussein Ece questioned what was wrong with having aspirational commitments.
As well as scrapping the ‘general duty’ for the EHRC, ministers have also announced a review of the public sector equalities duty covering all 40,000 authorities from local councils to health bodies.
UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis has written a letter to Equality Minister Maria Miller over the issue, stating: “Our experience of the previous equality duties is that that they have been invaluable in placing equality at the heart of decision making and improving the delivery of appropriate services to those who most need them.”
Baroness Hussein Ece defended the general duty for the EHRC, the watchdog of which she was a commissioner until last year when ministers failed to renew her term. She wrote in The Backbencher:
“Section 3 of the Bill, seeks to relieve the EHRC of the General Duty which requires it to promote equality, anti-discrimination and prejudice toward people who are disabled, ethnic minorities, and other protected groups.
“This is with the backdrop of the EHRC having its budget cut by 62%, and will have lost 72% of its staff compared to when it was established in 2007. Many of us feel that whereby the Commission’s budget should have quite rightly been reduced in line with other public bodies, these are disproportionate cuts, and risk making it difficult to carry out its work. Further cuts are anticipated in the next spending review and as a result of a zero-based budget review.
“So in removing the General Duty of the Commission, it would take away:
- The duty to promote good relations,
- to work to eliminate prejudice and hate towards groups including race and disabled people,
- to work towards enabling disabled people to participate in society,
- to promote or encourage the favourable treatment of disabled people
“These duties are particularly important in relation to prejudice against disabled people and highly stigmatised groups like people with mental health problems. These are also important issues that need to be tackled in these areas and no other statutory body has a remit to tackle them.
“The Government is saying that the EHRC has not been able to fulfil its mandate because its remit is “too wide” and the objective of their Commission reforms is to focus on the areas where it can add value because of its unique role and functions. They have yet to articulate what they consider this unique role and functions are and the evidence which has led to these proposals.
“We are told that these duties are only symbolic and will make ‘no real difference to the powers and functions’ of the Commission. However, if its inclusion has symbolic value, it must therefore be the case that its removal will also have symbolic significance, and send out a signal that equalities and the role of the UK’s only institution with these powers and responsibilities is to be watered down and reduced.”
A government consultation found overwhelming opposition to removing the general duty to tackle race inequality and promote good relations but business secretary Vince Cable’s department are pushing ahead with the change, which is likely to be challenged by Labour when the Enterprise and Regulatory Bill returns to the Commons.
The government’s position was defended by Lib Dem Lord Anthony Lester QC, but he faced peers of all parties who spoke out in favour of the general duty.
Conservative peer Lord Boswell of Aynho said that the general duty represented “what most of us are in politics for.”
Crossbench disability campaigner Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton told the Lords: “The inclusion of dignity in the commission’s general duty provides the glue to bind together anti-discrimination and human rights.”
And another crossbencher, Lord Colin Low of Dalston, commented: “We all know that anything with the words “human rights” in it is like a red rag to a bull to the right-wing of the Conservative Party. The Government have decided to throw the dismantling of the EHRC as a bone to their right-wing. Labour described this as abolition of the EHRC by stealth, but I am not sure what is so stealthy about it.”
In an article for the Institute of Employment Rights Carola Twole argues that society owes it to the memory of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence not to weaken race laws. She said:
“Equality legislation has taken hit after hit since the Tory-led Coalition came to power. They have repeatedly characterised equality protections as burdensome red tape, and now we end 2012 with the government critically reviewing the effectiveness of the Public Sector Equality Duty – arguably the jewel in the crown of Labour’s final act before the last general election.
“Let us remind ourselves where the first of these public sector equality duties came from – the duty to promote race equality. It came from the inquiry into the failure of the police to properly investigate the racist murder of a young Black teenager – Stephen Lawrence.
“We must honour Stephen’s legacy and defend the Public Sector Equality Duty. It is not a matter of red tape, but rather of the sort of society we want to live in.”
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway