Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Losing Our Equality

‘Equality’ is an abstract concept which lacks the glamour of issues such as health or welfare. So I doubt people will ever get as fired up about threats to the Equality and Human Rights Commission as they did, say, about the NHS.
But it is something we OUGHT to consider … it has been the dream of society ever since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1388, and it underlies many of the ‘rights’ which we cherish today.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission
Equality in Britain today is defined by Labour’s Equality Act of 2010, and defended by the non-departmental public body set up in 2006 – the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  The EHRC united, under one roof, functions previously undertaken by three separate bodies – the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission. 

Consolidating these functions into one body made sense; unfortunately, it also neatly parcelled up our rights into one easily-attacked organisation for the Tories … for whom, as we know, equality of human beings is the very LAST thing they want.

The Commission’s most famous success was its 2009 action against the BNP's restriction of membership to ‘indigenous Caucasian’ groups, but its work and very existence embodies much more – it is, in fact, the culmination of half a century of fighting for our human rights. 
It is the defender of our equal rights: recently, the EHRC issued a strong condemnation of the government’s cuts to welfare benefits and EMA, saying there was no evidence the government had adequately considered in its decision-making process the effects of its policies on ethnicity, disability or gender.

Of course, as with so many things Labour, the EHRC was a chaos.  The Audit Commission refused to sign off its accounts three years running.  It was bureaucratic, slow and unwieldly and drew a great deal of criticism. 
Even so – although the government's consultation report claims that ‘almost a thousand responses were received; most were unhappy with the EHRC’s performance to date’ – when the Public and Commercial Services Union submitted a Freedom of Information request, they found ‘the responses clearly show overwhelming opposition to the repeal of specific sections of the Equality Act 2006’.

Goodbye EHRC
Nonetheless, yesterday, the government proposed to slash the budget, staff and functions of the EHRC and to:
* halve its budget by 2015.
* sack nearly two-thirds of its staff.
* repeal its good relations powers (under which it tackled hate crime, disability harassment etc.).
* curtail its monitoring powers and reduce its requirement to report from every 3 to every 5 years.
* axe its helpline and grants.
* end its provision of conciliation in non-workplace disputes.
* pass the handling of disabled air passengers’ complaints over to the Civil Aviation Authority.
* reduce the number of Board members, replacing them with members with ‘stronger business skills’.
* and make the EHRC’s approach to enforcing equality law ‘much more proportionate and appropriate for small and medium sized enterprises’ (as part of the Red Tape Challenge Spotlight on Equalities).

Just how detrimental to the working of the EHRC these measures will prove to be is, of course, debateable, but PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka summed up the Unions fears when he said: 

“Rather than helping to make our society more equal, these cuts risk setting us back decades and abandoning people who need help. Investing in equality is not 'red tape', it is absolutely necessary in recognition of the fact that, after years of fighting, sections of our communities still face discrimination and hatred.”

The greatest loss – Harman’s Law

One of the triumphs of the Labour government in the area of equality, and which you may not know about, was the so-called ‘Harman’s Law’ – the requirement of the 2010 Equality Act which (building on the EHRC's general duty ‘to perform its functions with a view to making society fairer’) imposed a ‘socio-economic duty’ on public bodies to consider the effect of their policies on the gap between rich and poor.

It is easy to see how this duty was something that the Tories hated.  If properly applied, it would have forced Councils to give more money to schools in poorer areas, it would have forced the government to award NHS funding by deprivation not by longevity, and it would have forced the Chancellor to favour the north-east over the south-east, and the low-paid over the super-rich, in his budget.

But now – labelling the provision ‘socialism in one clause’ – Theresa May is abolishing the requirement.
And whereas the cuts to the funding and powers of the EHRC might be debateable, the loss of this key principle is not.

In 2011, Theresa May was quite correct when she said:
“You can’t solve a problem as complex as inequality in one legal clause.  You can’t make people’s lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better.”

But the ‘general duty’ was about much more than a simple function, a legal clause; it was a declaration of intent … a declaration of war on the causes of poverty, as well as its results. 
It envisaged a society which had at the forefront of every decision a determination to do away with economic inequality.

Fixing Inequality into Society
Critical here, are the grounds on which Theresa May justified her decision: 

“At its worst, it could have meant public spending permanently skewed towards certain parts of the country … We shouldn’t just compensate people for the barriers to opportunity that they face.”

And it is here that the contrast between Labour and the Tories is most stark.

For what is wrong – given that the south-east’s business advantage sees a continuous flow of wealth out of the north – with a system where every government department was required to make sure that its policies did not make the situation worse?  What is wrong with policies which attempt to strengthen north-east industry, and even to redistribute funding back the north-east?

Labour sees inequality as something to be addressed and redressed … as something which it is the duty of government and public bodies to compensate for, and to work to eradicate.
The Tories see equality as an election slogan – a fine-sounding principle to which to pay lip-service – and their focus is much more about providing a fair and ‘equitable’ return to employers and the advantaged.  Within such a vision of society, inequality becomes almost part of the natural order of things … an inevitable cost and consequence of opportunity.

As Harriet Harman said in 2010: 

“A person’s socio-economic background is still a key factor in determining their life chances – how they get on at school, the chances of continuing with their education, their employment prospects and their health.”

And that is why the abolition of the general duty – of ‘Harman’s Law’ – is such a disaster … because it threatens to embed economic inequality into our society as a permanent and immutable truth of life.
And that, of course, is the kind of Britain which this rich man’s government wants…

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