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!