The 9th and 10th sittings of the Equality Bill Committee

The 9th and 10th sittings of the Equality Bill Committee

We kicked off with a debate on amendments to do with ‘reasonable adjustment’ for people with disabilities. My proposals were around making it crystal clear that a ‘reasonable adjustment’ would not just be cosmetic. So – for instance – if a person in a wheelchair couldn’t get into a bank because of steps what would a ‘reasonable adjustment’ be? Perhaps a bank might try to argue that it could just install a bell so that the person could ring and get someone to come outside to do business on the steps of the bank with the person. But the real answer to deliver an equal outcome would be a ramp (or similar access) – obviously – so that the person with disabilities could have the same ability to enter the bank as someone without such a disability.

Although the argument back was that it was clear that a bell would not be ‘reasonable’ – and so no change in the Bill was needed – the Equality and Human Rights Commission supported the amendment, believing it to be a necessary change in the Bill. The amendment would have the twin benefits of consistency and clarity of approach. It would make it clear in the Bill that, for example, a service should, wherever possible, be provided to a disabled person in the same way as for a non-disabled person.

We then had a debate about frequency – which I thought was also a valid point. If something only happened once a year – then it would not be ‘reasonable’ to have to alter buildings etc to accommodate something that infrequent. However, if it was daily, weekly etc – then the same adjustment that would be needed would be ‘reasonable’ because the frequency made it so.

We progressed to my Lib Dem colleagues’ amendments around harassment and sexual orientation, which were argued very extensively. One of the key issues here is around the fact that lots of kids get bullied in school because they are gay or look gay or act gay – whether gay or not. Now the Government is seeking to exclude the protected characteristic of sexual orientation from harassment. We are arguing that we need sexual orientation to receive the protection from discrimination that the Bill provides. Can’t for the life of me understand why the Government wants to remove that protection from such a vulnerable group.

Evan Harris (Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon) put the point that there is a real problem in the amount of homophobic bullying that takes place in schools. It is totally unacceptable for there to be no legal protection against harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation. If that protection is there – then it would focus the minds of governing bodies of schools – whether faith schools or ordinary schools – on the fact that they have a legal obligation to protect vulnerable pupils.

The Minister seemed not to be worried about homophobic bullying in schools – and followed her brief (supplied by civil servants), which basically said that she was not minded to accept the amendment. This one seems another one that the Government has just got completely wrong.

Progressing – John Mason (SNP) put an amendment which was basically aimed at supporting someone’s religious beliefs and allowing for conscience in deciding whether someone as part of their job had to carry out a duty which was against their religious belief. You probably remember the Islington Registrar who refused to marry gay couples – i.e. perform civil partnerships. It’s that type of thing. John Mason’s argument was that the world was a big enough place to allow people to abide by their religious beliefs and conscience and employers could work around that.

I totally disagree. So – I popped up and said:

“This is a difficult area, and we are trying to get the balance right, but as discrimination law has advanced so far as to bring into play factors that did not exist before, it is important that we get it right. That extends to a whole range of issues. There might be people who do not wish to police a gay march, or firemen who will not attend certain incidents. On the execution of public duty, it is important that we make it clear here and now that carrying out public services cannot be a matter of conscience in the way that the Honourable Gentleman might wish. That is not signalling against a genuinely held conviction or people’s conscience; it is a necessity in the modern age. People with such convictions might ultimately make different choices about their careers.”

In the delivery of public services – you have to do the job and if there are elements of the job that you cannot do in all conscience – then it isn’t the job for you.

The next main barney was over ‘age discrimination’ as people under 18 are to be exempted from the protection afforded against age discrimination in the Bill. I argued the case – supported by the Young Equals lobby group – that we need to include young people in the protection. Obviously there are age related issues that need to be dealt with – children of different ages and children and adults are different in capability and understanding – and that needs to be distinguished in the Bill. But that shouldn’t be an excuse to allow plain discrimination. But Vera Baird wasn’t having it.

Another big issue next – the blanket ban on gay men from giving blood donations. My argument is that individuals should be banned according to their actual behaviour, not according to crude categories.

Currently there would be a lifetime ban on a gay man who had had protected sex once. There is no equivalent on a straight man – who may have had more partners. So to me the argument is clear – judgements should be based on people’s actual behaviour and the risks that arise from that. Stonewall agree with me and recently the Anthony Nolan bone marrow transplant trust removed their ban on gay donors. Other countries have a risk-based approach.

But in response the Government just quoted the NHS leaflet on blood supply. They weren’t even really prepared to listen or consider the unfairness and inequality of a blanket ban – especially disappointing as what it does is stop people who want to, and can, help their fellow citizens who are in need.

And whilst we are on the subject – the worst ever risk to the blood supply came from this Labour Government. They continued to allow haemophiliacs to receive contaminated treatment long after they knew it was contaminated. Consequently, haemophiliacs have been exposed to, infected and killed by this Government’s refusal to ensure the safety of blood donations. They have been contaminated with HIV AIDS, Hepatitis C and human variant CJD. Can you imagine the cruelty of their last tragic intransigence on the contaminated blood – in that they moved under 16 year olds to safe treatments (chemically produced – not from blood supply) but made any older males continue to use the contaminated blood. It’s the Government who are the biggest risk to anyone who needs blood – not gay men! As you can see – I get very heated and angry on that one.

But on to another interesting ding dong – this time between me and the Tories. I was arguing that the armed forces shouldn’t be able to be exempt from the Bill when looking at combat effectiveness. The Bill allows them to say to someone for reasons of age, disability, sex and gender reassignment, that they may not serve on the front line.

My argument is again that this should not be blanket – but that it should be according to capability and therefore you can’t just say a woman can’t do or someone who is transgender cannot fight for example. Goodness knows – as with blood donors, we are told often enough that there aren’t enough people coming forward. Of course – choose who should serve in what role based on ability and capacity – but not on crude categorisation.

And there is a very, very exciting bit to come – but I will post that separately!

0 thoughts on “The 9th and 10th sittings of the Equality Bill Committee

  1. Not really an expert on the Equalities Bill – anyone know if anything in it will put a stop to all the sex discrimination by the Passport Office?

  2. I thought that we already have adequate legislation to require organisations such as banks to provide access for the disabled to most of their premises, so why do we need more? The test at the moment seems to be that all reasonable steps must be taken to provide that access. So almost all branches of clearing banks should be making that provision, but a small shop (or even the office of a small Credit Union) might reasonably say 'ring the bell' if the cost of modifying the property is extremely high in comparison to the wealth of the owners, and a 1st floor cafe, accessed by a steep staircase, in a historic building in a historic town centre is OK to say 'cannot' (as happened in one case reported in my local paper). Enough witch-hunts were tried when the DDA came in, so let's not provide an opportunity for more.And a personal note: my brother, who is severely physically disabled, takes the small inconveniences as facts of life, and welcomes the increasing help that he does get.

  3. Anonymous – explain what the discrimination by the Passport Office is in particular – then I can either answer or find out.dreamingspire – the point is not just reasonable adjustment – and the bank wasn't a brilliant example – the point is that it has to be towardes optimum rather than the most basic 'reasonable' adjustment.

  4. Hi Lynne – perhaps I'm wrong about sex discrimination by the passport office – I heard about it a few year back perhaps they've sorted it by now?Anyway the issue is that an unmarried man cannot apply for a passport for his child unless he has the permission of the mother. This means that such fathers are unable to take his own children on any foreign holidays without her say-so. Unmarried females do not face the same restrictions and can do whatever they wish.

  5. I think it's sad that Christians especially are being pushed from public service because there may be "elements of the job that you cannot do in all conscience."Where would the UK be without people like William Wilberforce and those Christians who pushed through reforms on child welfare etc?The beliefs that Christians hold have been accepted for over 2,000 years. Suddenly are they wrong? Is the UK then "evolving" morally, or "devolving" (losing our sense of what is right or wrong)? We need people of moral integrity in public office more than ever now.

  6. Are you going to defend overweight people who are picked on tirelessly by their peers in school? Or those who wear glasses? How about those who have a speech impediment? Why do you and this government just support one or two sections of the population! Equality should be ALL inclusive not just for gays/blacks/women etc…

  7. Anonymous – I do not think the Bill "just support one or two sections of the population". It has bits about not discrimination against women – but they are the majority. Add in all the other groups mentioned in the Bill and it covers the vast majority of the population. A very odd use of "one or two sections"! Is there any group mentioned in the Bill who you think should be left out? Do you think, for example, discrimination against women should be legal?Is there any group not mentioned in the Bill who you think should be included?I would be interested to know which groups you want in or out, as otherwise I think you would support the Bill too?

  8. Rosey – but only to remove the truly obscene etc. – never moderated to remove opinions that I disagree with.

  9. I am amazed that you are promoting discrimination against Christians, whilst looking at a bill about 'equality'. No one should be in fear of their jobs, or have to change their jobs, just because of their honest Christian Convictions in a truly democratic society that respects freedom of speech. New labour is ostracizing Christians, whilst at the same time promoting other religious groups such as islam, even though it does not believe in Womens rights, and under Islamic law,practicing homosexuals can face the death penalty.I sense a slight imbalance here, or maybe it is just a straight forward bias, and shame on those who are promoting it…in the name of equality.

  10. I very much hope this bill is going to help do away with more discrimination that it creates.We already have men banned from using certain public services – eg Libraries, not to mention the corresponding sex discrimination in employment in order to fulfil such bans.Will the equality bill stop libraries from banning people on the basis of their gender? I'd guess if Harman ha anything to do with it it'll cause more such discrimination rather than less.

  11. Lynne, with respect there is a considerable difference between my text "The test at the moment seems to be that all reasonable steps must be taken to provide that access" and your response "the most basic 'reasonable' adjustment". Maybe there is evidence of widespread avoidance of compliance – if so, I would like to see references to it – maybe also evidence that operators of premises can too easily ignore the requirements, and certainly I have seen in my area a number of shop refurbishments where the result has been unsatisfactory (doorways with a step at the threshold, for example), but should not it be left to local authorities to police that under existing regulations?Yesterday I was in the M&S at High St Kensington. The merchandise was laid out in such a dense fashion that it was difficult for an able-bodied person to get round the shop or see where the exits are, and impossible for someone with a child in a buggy – the local authority should deal with that under public safety regulation as well as disability discrimination legislation.

  12. I am a Liberal Democrat and by religion a Roman Catholic. It is a religion I take as seriously as can be.I am also a tolerant man who has no difficulty in getting on with others who aren't Catholics, upholding their right to religious freedom whatever they may believe, and respecting their honest consciences.But, having read your remarks that Christians ought to get another job if they are called upon in public service to act against their consciences, I am willing to make an exception in your case, Lynne.Lynne Featherstone, I find it insulting and offensive that you do not believe and profess the Roman Catholic religion, and that you refuse to use your position in Parliament to structure public life according to its precepts.

  13. Looks to me like Christianity is at the bottom of the pile in your opinion. I was aghast at the TUC calling for the resignation of Joel Edwards from the Equalities Commission,simply for being an Evangelical Christian. Where is our country heading?

  14. Michael Petek – and that is the point. I defend your right to be offended by my lack of belief in the Roman Catholic faith! I also defend the right of those in public service to hold to their beliefs and their conscience – I just don't think you can have a job in public service and then select whom you will serve.

  15. So we must make 'reasonable adjustments' for people with disabilities but not for Christians. I assume this means there are more disabled voters than Christian ones in Hornsey and Wood Green.

  16. Lynne, the presumption is that in public service you have to serve everyone regardless. Where you draw the line is at the point where a public official is required formally to co-operate in evil: eg. to join two persons of same sex in a civil partnership; or to join two persons of different sex in a civil marriage, knowing that one or both of them are divorced from someone who is still alive.It's conflicts like this which identify the limits within which religions including secular humanism and relativism have to be treated as civil equals. You can't carry the discussion any further without asserting one religion as true, and true for everyone whether they like it or not.Granted, you can't have a job in public service and then select whom you will serve. Public authorities in the UK (and for that matter in Saudi Arabia as much as elsewhere) must serve God in concurrence with the morality of the Catholic religion and they don't have the option of doing otherwise.Upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms is, by the way, a religious obligation for Catholics. See Pope Benedict's address to the Address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on 4 May 2009.

  17. Hi Lynne, you say "I just don't think you can have a job in public service and then select whom you will serve." Christians are well known, perhaps above any other group, as being providers of care and compassion to many people, even those who others would consider untouchables, without discrimination. Christians are very tolerant it's just that they don't want to "promote" something they think is wrong. In many cases, the Christians being persecuted have had the rules changed on them suddenly. I really feel for them.By the way, even the notion of "equality" is based in the Judaeo-Christian worldview. You are borrowing it and turning it around on Christians. I think that you believe that you 're championing "equality" which is worthy cause, but, underneath all that, you may be promoting a cause which has a moral question over it.

  18. So by your argument Lynne, say Christian doctors or even non-Christian ones who refuse to participate in abortions or recommend them should perhaps be thinking about another career as they would not be providing a 'public service' for all? I have great respect for your integrity but I am disappointed that you seem to have so little respect for those with deeply held moral convictions who will be forced out of their jobs by the imposition of such chilling legislation. Iconoclast

  19. No – I totally support the right that doctor's have under legislation to opt out of abortion. For obvious reasons – there is a fundamental difference between abortion and a for example conducting a civil partnership ceremony. And I have every respect for those who hold reglious convictions. What I was saying (or trying to say) in committee was that the world has changed radically in terms of equality issues and people are now confronted in their work with challenges that would not have been forseen. That means there are lots of jobs – like serving alcohol for a Muslim or marrying a gay couple if you are a Christian that now affect those who hold belief. Therefore there is an issue about which job you go into.

  20. So, by the very nature that the new equalities bill will require to treat some people than others, for example saying that a Christian cannot disagree with the homosexual lifestyle, while it’s OK for a homosexual to disagree with Christianity, means that the whole equalities bill is not very equal.

    Epic fail IMO.

  21. What a load of rubbish this spurious leigislation is. I was hoping that the new government were going to ditch it.
    What the government does not seem to understand is that there is no such thing as equality. People are different. It is not a question of people being equa or inferiorl because that is an impossible concept and this is why the legislation is so flawed.
    Lynne has said that there is a fundamental difference between abortion and homosexual “marriage”. No there isn’t. BOTH are wrong. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman for the purpose of both honouring God, having children, remaining faithful to each other and promoting family life. Abortion is just plain murder. BOTH are not allowed by God and both are a disgrace on the nation.
    And since when has it been wrong to discriminate? We all do this every day when we make choices between right and wrong or who we will do business with or who we will vote for, who our friends will be etc. When will the government legislate against this I wonder.
    I worked for the Prison Service for a year and we had some people seconded to carry out Lesbian & gay responsibilities nonesense. They were prison officers for goodness sake and should have been gainfully employed in that profession NOT side tracked into this ridiculous pastime that had little or no impact on anyone other than give those involved something different to do to pass the time of day.
    Government should not be employing people because they belong to certain minority groups, they should be employing people for their skills and aptitiude for the job.

  22. Quote
    What I was saying (or trying to say) in committee was that the world has changed radically in terms of equality issues and people are now confronted in their work with challenges that would not have been forseen. That means there are lots of jobs – like serving alcohol for a Muslim or marrying a gay couple if you are a Christian that now affect those who hold belief. Therefore there is an issue about which job you go into.
    End Quote
    I missed this prize piece.
    No the world hasn’t changed, these issues have always been around in one form or another and people have dealt with them appropriately. Muslims don’t have to serve alcohol ordinarily but if they work for Tesco then perhaps they shouldn’t be on the checkout. Similarly Christians don’t have to be involved in marrying homosexual couples if another is willing to do it. Most employers accommodate these kinds of things very well without government interference.