Make-your-mind-up time over ministers commitment to equality

equalitiesctteeLast December I reported on the taskforce set up to review the Public Sector Equality Duty, noting how it was un-diverse and dominated by Conservatives it was.

I now hear the taskforce, led by ex-Tory MP Rob Haywood (pictured with microphone) is completing its’ work. At the same time a broad coalition is preparing to make a big impact if the taskforce comes to the wrong conclusions, with pressure being greatest on Lib Dem ministers who are in the best position to defend equalities.

The Lords have already soundly rejected plans by the coalition government to scrap the ‘General Duty’ – a mission statement enshrining the vision of a Britain free of discrimination – forcing equalities minister Jo Swinson to do a u-turn. Unions, Doreen Lawrence, Labour (particularly Chuka Umunna) and equality-minded Lib Dems such as Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece joined forces to win the day.

The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), covering all 40,000 public authorities, is even more important than the General Duty as it enables institutions to take specific action to address inequalities. The only problem with the PSED is that it isn’t used nearly enough. 

Jo Swinson is on record as praising PSED. Speaking to the Common’s Business Innovations and Skills committee in January she said:

“I think the Public Sector Equality Duty is important. In requiring organisations in the public sector to have due regard to preventing and eliminating discrimination, to fostering good relations and to advancing the cause of equality, that provides a positive move towards equality, rather than just the absence of discrimination. Equality is more than the absence of discrimination. We want to make sure, however, that this is working as well as it can. That is why we have set up a review of the Public Sector Equality Duty.”

Her position in favour of PSED is loud and clear, so campaigners will not be expecting her to change her tune.

However when she was a backbencher she stood up in the Commons to ask whether ministers would “reassure my constituents that the Government will resist any siren calls to water down the Equality Act as part of the red tape challenge?” only to do just that after entering government by seeking to abolish the General Duty.

It would be inconceivable that Swinson would go back on her word twice on a similar issue.

I reproduce my blog from December 2012 below:

Equalities laws to go up in smoke?

The new coalition taskforce responsible for reviewing equalities laws introduced by the last Labour government is to be chaired by an ex-Conservative MP Rob Hayward.

The group will look at whether to repeal or amend the equalities duties, including the obligation on all public authorities to promote good race relations.

The law was first introduced in the aftermath of the Macpherson report into the death of Stephen Lawrence.

Last week David Cameron and Nick Clegg wrote to Doreen Lawrence reassuring her that race equality was still a priority for the coalition.

But now an eleven-strong committee of civil servants and professionals will consider whether equalities protection should be watered down.

The steering group includes Mark Loveday, a councillor for the controversial Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham, and Munira Mirza, who formerly worked for the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange and is currently a senior advisor to London mayor Boris Johnson

It also includes Ed Lord, a former Young Conservative activist who represents the Liberal Democrats in the City of London, a senior policeman and the newly-appointed chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission Baroness Onora O’Neill of Bengarve. There are only two people of colour, Mirza and senior NHS manager Paula Vasco-Knight.

The blog Phil & Friends have criticised the panel for excluding any disability experts. It could also be said that there are no recognised experts on race equality either.

Jonathan Rees, head of the government’s race equality office, might disagree but he has many critics who point to his powerful behind-the-scenes role in dismantling the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

In a recent letter to the PCS trade union representing EHRC workers, Rees wrote that the government were:

“Moving away from the identity politics of the past to an approach that recognises people’s individuality and a role for Government of promoting equality through transparency and behaviour change and working with businesses, the voluntary sector and wider civil society to create equal opportunities for everyone.”

Rees’s letter was a very different tone to the one sent to Doreen Lawrence following her criticism of coalition policies, in which Cameron and Clegg wrote:

“We recognise how important it is to ensure the legacy of Stephen’s murder and Lord Macpherson’s report will never be lost. That legacy was to change fundamentally and forever the way we think about race in this country. We know you have worked tirelessly to drive these improvements and are extremely grateful to you for your work. We also want to reiterate the government’s commitment to equal treatment and equal opportunity. We care a great deal about making sure our policies never marginalise or discriminate.”

Many equality experts will contrast Cameron and Clegg’s assertion that they care deeply about race equality when they have cut the EHRC’s budget by almost three quarters since 2010, axed the local Race Equality Council network and repealed a swathe of EHRC powers to investigate employers suspected of discriminating.

Ministers are conducting a zero-based funding review of the EHRC in a process some suspect will lead to further cuts, and the only two race equality board members on the EHRC – Simon Woolley and Baroness Meral Hussein Ece – were recently ditched.

In a letter to The Guardian Maria Miller, the senior equalities minister, wrote:

“We are reforming the EHRC because, since its creation in 2007, it has struggled to deliver across its remit or inspire confidence in its governance, expertise or ability to deliver high-quality work at good value for the taxpayer.”

At the same time the coalition have made it harder for employees to take out an employment tribunal and are currently consulting on scrapping the requirement for public authorities to carry out Equality Impact Assessments on their policies.

Some suspect that the steering group looking into public sector duties is on a mission to ‘burn red tape’ to make services more efficient, however experts argue there is little evidence that equality is holding any authorities back.

Recently the EHRC also proved that private business do not see equalities monitoring as a burden. Mark Hammond, EHRC chief executive, said:

“Following equality and human rights practice makes good business sense as it ensures that both employers and employees benefit from a fairer and more transparent workplace. This means a more productive workforce and a business that performs well. To help ensure every business is aware of the Equality Act, the Commission provides advice and guidance that explains simply what it means and how it can work for employers.”

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway


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