By Janice Turner, SLF Council member
A joint campaign by the SLF and Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats has succeeded in persuading the government to back down over abolition of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s General Duty.
The proposal was to abolish Section 3 of the Equality Act and it was contained in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which reached its final stages this week.
Section 3 places a general duty on the EHRC to exercise its functions with a view to encouraging and supporting the development of a society in which people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination.
The General Duty was supported by all the main parties when it became law less than seven years ago. But the government was now suggesting that it had no legal purpose and getting rid of it was simply tidying up.
Opponents argued that rather than serving no legal purpose, the General Duty in fact is necessary to ensure that the EHRC maintains its status as a United Nations A- rated national human rights institution. And even if it did have no legal purpose, it has powerful symbolism – similar to the preamble to the Lib Dem Constitution that so many of us cling to. And if it is meaningless, why go to all this trouble to abolish it?
It was pretty clear that the government’s intention was to clip the wings of the EHRC by attempting to narrow its remit down to that of ‘expert witness’, rather than have the organisation actively trying to educate and raise awareness of equality and human rights issues.
Many equality and human rights organisations and trade unions opposed the move and SLF and EMLD, led by Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece in the House of Lords, made their views clear.
Over several months EMLD and SLF campaigned, joined by the Liberal Democrat Disability Association. They lobbied publicly and privately, held meetings with party officials and ministers and lobbied MPs and peers. EMLD and SLF wrote to Nick Clegg setting out the reason for retaining the General Duty. The vote to retain it was won on the second reading in the House of Lords on 4th March but then was lost in the Commons on 16 April.
However, the issue was due back in the Lords on 22 April which was also the 20th anniversary of the killing of Stephen Lawrence. EMLD and SLF wrote to the Lib Dem peers urging them to stay on into the evening to vote to retain the General Duty, while the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) – which is not affiliated to any political party – and others also lobbied hard. Again, the Lords voted by a majority of about 30 to retain it. 17 Lib Dem peers had rebelled. It was noted at the end of the debate that not a single person supported the government position other than the minister who had been given that job.
The government then announced that they would not bring it back to the Commons. Lib Dem Equalities Minister Jo Swinson told the House of Commons that “In the light of the clear views expressed in the other place, the government have reconsidered our position and will not insist on our disagreement to Lords Amendment 35. This will allow the General Duty to remain in the 2006 Act.”
The government also chose not to fight another amendment that would make caste discrimination illegal. But it did not accept another one also passed in the Lords, retaining the existing scope of the EHRC to monitor progress against its general duty and so this was dropped. However it was subsequently pointed out by the government that as the EHRC is supposed to be independent from government, it is free to do whatever monitoring it sees fit.
The challenge now for the EHRC is to demonstrate in the coming months just how independent it really is from government. The newly installed chair Baroness O’Neill did not help matters by supporting the government’s position in the earlier Lords debate on the EHRC.
This is a sensational victory for SLF and EMLD. Members of the House of Lords said that it was almost unheard of for the government to back down on legislation in this way. Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece said:
“I strongly believe that it would be extremely damaging for us as a country and society if we are seen to be rolling back on equality.
“Transparency, scrutiny and accountability remain the watchwords. Retaining the General Duty is one key element of these, where we strive to become a society that values social justice and promotes greater equality.”
For SLF and EMLD this victory of common sense shows how effective we can be in campaigning to defend Liberal values in government. The EHRC’s general duty would have been abolished were it not for the Lib Dems campaign. However both organisations are aware that this is not the end: a review is currently underway into the Public Sector Equality Duty, and both organisations will be fighting to prevent the Coalition from undermining this vitally important piece of legislation.
Congratulations should go to the following 17 Lib Dem peers who rebelled against the government and thus stopped the abolition of the General Duty:
Lord Dominic Addington
Lord Eric Avebury
Baroness Elizabeth Barker
Baroness Floella Benjamin
Baroness Sal Brinton
Lord Tim Clement-Jones
Lord Brian Cotter
Lord Navnit Dholakia
Baroness Dee Doocey
Lord Ronnie Fearn
Lord Qurban Hussain
Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece
Lord Andrew Phillips of Sudbury
Lord Roger Roberts of Llandudno
Lord David Steel of Aikwood
Lord Paul Strasburger
Lord Martin Thomas of Gresford