OK – so am going to try and blog the process of legislation through the Equality Bill. To date – we have had the First Reading of the Bill (a formality) and then the Second Reading , which happens in the chamber of the House of Commons and where the Bill overall is debated. We have had ‘evidence’ sessions where witnesses (groups with particular interest in the Bill) give their views on parts of the Bill and we get to questions them. And now we have entered the Committee Stage where we (a smaller group of MPs) scrutinise the legislation line by line.
If this gets too long-winded or onerous I will cease – but as I write so often about local issues – thought it might interest some to see the Parliamentary process at work.
The Bill is gone through in order and we, the Tories and the Government, table amendments to the Bill and some are selected each session of the Committee for.
The key issues that came up in the first sessions were:
– the “socio-economic duty”: this would be a new duty on, for example, local councils to consider the impact of their decisions and spending on the gap between rich and poor, and to try to reduce these socio-economic divides where possible.
– which bodies should be covered by this new duty: it would apply to parts of ‘the state’ but how narrowly or broadly should the net be cast?
– the “protected characteristics” – that is, those categories which would be protected by this Bill from discrimination, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
The socio-economic duty is something that the Government bunged in at the last minute. All parties believe narrowing the socio-economic gap is important – but the Tories feel it shouldn’t be in this particular Bill. We Liberal Democrats think it is one of the greatest and most intractable of inequalities – but that this duty is somewhat tokenistic. We have no objection to the good it might do – but believe it far too weak to really deliver change.
When we got to debating the Government’s list of authorities that would come under this duty, the Government was disposed to accept/look at two of my amendments which question why the Greater London Authority bodies like the Fire Authority, the Metropolitan Police Authority and Transport for London were excluded when they are clearly making strategic decisions that can affect the socio-economic status. Ditto for fire authorities across the country.
The ‘form’ for amendments is that even if the Government agrees with them, they don’t support them at the Committee Stage, but instead say they will introduce similar amendments of their own at the subsequent Report Stage. Sometimes this can be for good reasons (they can get their lawyers to pour over the wording to ensure it’s just right) but sometimes also there is a touch of “if it hasn’t got our name on it, we won’t support it” about it all.
Anyway – the Government said they will bring back their own amendments on these issues, so it looks as if the changes I was asking for will end up in the Bill – hurrah!
What would it mean in practice? Well, consider the example of a fire authority making decisions about its fire prevention efforts. The duty would require them to consider the different risks in areas arising from how deprived they are – for example, in poorer areas there may be fewer firm alarms, buildings may be less fireproof, more use of paraffin heaters etc. If it then turns out some areas are therefore at greater risk of fires and death from fires – then they’d have to take this into account when planning their fire prevention work.
Then we debated the list of ‘protected characteristics’ such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability etc – sometimes called the ‘equality strands’. We (Liberal Democrats) were proposing amendments to stop discrimination on the grounds of someone’s caste, their genetic make-up and family history, disadvantaged socio-economic status, paternity (discrimination on grounds of maternity or pregnancy is already covered, but not paternity) and on grounds of being a carer (people who have caring responsibilities are often discriminated against, for example by an employer who won’t take them on in case their caring responsibilities interfere with their work). And then there was the protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’ – which turned into a bit of an argy bargy.
All were tossed aside by the Minister (Vera Baird) with varying degrees of sympathy. Socio-economic disadvantage got short shrift as the Government couldn’t see how that could be measured – but I don’t see why given they can quantify poverty in terms of children who get free school dinners or the myriad measures of deprivation through which they give grants. We thought it would anchor the new socio-economic duty – as it is free floating and somewhat illogical without a strand.
They ummed and ahhed a bit about genetics as it clearly will be a problem down the line when the moratorium on insurance companies expires in 2014. Currently insurance companies are not allowed to use genetic information to guide their policies – so they can’t select some people and charge their higher premiums because of their genes for example. The sense of fairness behind the moratorium means it’s been widely supported – but although the Bill is the chance to settle the matter, the Government didn’t seem moved to do anything.
On caste – they were pretty unsympathetic – just saying they had tried to get evidence of discrimination because of caste but the organisations they had gone to (Hindu and Sikh) had said they were very against legal steps to outlaw caste-based discrimination and didn’t have evidence that it was needed. But I can’t help thinking that those who support a caste system might not want to volunteer evidence so that we can outlaw it. On carers – they were more sympathetic but didn’t feel it was necessary ultimately and that they would be covered by ‘association’ to someone who was disabled, old etc.
The protected characteristic currently in the list as ‘gender reassignment’ we wanted changed to ‘gender identity’. This is not a well understood area as the Bill clearly fails to understand the spectrum that exists on gender – where people can feel anything from confused, to any degree of transgender feeling, to – at the other end of the scale – gender reassignment and medical sex change. The wording in the Bill around ‘reassignment’ are all about a process leading to change, and so totally fail to encompass the wider range of situations, conditions and feelings that people have about their gender.
The Minister didn’t seem to know very much about this group of people. They are tiny in number and highly vulnerable as their ‘characteristic’ is barely understood, is reviled and joked about in the way that years ago occurred over other characteristics that we now take as mainstream. It is a hard challenge to grow up not having that certainty about gender that most of us are fortunate enough to not give a second thought to. However, Vera Baird showed no real comprehension of the complexities of this situation and could only argue defensively that ‘reassignment’ wasn’t medical but if you lived in another gender you would be protected. None of that deals with anyone at any stage before living as another gender – and many people with gender identity issues never get to such a place where they ‘change’ gender (whether by appearance or by surgery) – but can still be discriminated against as freakish in some way if they don’t present as male or female identifiably.
Anyway – we will return to that issue at Report Stage, I hope, as it is very important and I didn’t feel that the Minister really got it.
Enough for now!