15th and 16th sitting of the Equality Bill Committee

On we went to the 15th and 16th sitting of the Equality Bill Committee during the week. The first part of the day was spent on the Public Sector Equality Duty.

Tim Boswell (Tory) had tabled an amendment that sought to add protection of an individual’s human rights to the public sector equality duty. The argument he made (rightly in my view – and I have a new clause along the same lines next Tuesday) was that the Bill should not only be about stopping discrimination on specific grounds – the ‘protected characteristics’ such as race, sex, disability, religions, sexual orientation and so on. It should also be about more general promotion of human rights – which, apart from the practical implications would also be an important message of principle about human rights being for everyone and not simply a collection of specific niches. In response, the Solicitor General did not really address the point, just saying that she did not think this amendment would add anything to the protection already in the Bill.

The debate moved onto the frontbench Tories arguing (or probing) the Government as to how they wanted the public sector equality duty to apply to private companies who are contracted to deliver public services. The duty certainly extends to their delivery of the public service for which they are contracted – but not it would seem to their own organisation.

The Minister argued against this, saying it would put companies in an uncompetitive position. If Group 4, for example, in its public function of running prisons was also thereby required to follow the public sector equality duty in its other commercial ventures – say delivering cash to banks – then other companies that did not have this duty could have a competitive advantage.

There was also a very long section around religious organisations who also operate commercial functions. An example would be Catholic adoption agencies – which under the duty would be bound to facilitate adoption to a gay couple. Given that they feel this transgresses their ethos, the argument was that they should not have to do it.

The Solicitor General answered that in the provision of adoption services such an agency should be able to offer every option for a child – including gay adoption if necessary. I don’t think this is something that there will ever be agreement on – but the law moves to make a public function non-discriminatory.

In the afternoon, I had two amendments which questions why the Government exempted schools and children’s homes from the protection from age discrimination. My arguments were around the inequity of children in children’s homes being arbitrarily moved because that children’s home was registered for, say, 10 – 14 year olds – which can be bad enough in itself, but even worse if it means they are separated from siblings with whom they are meant to be kept. Under 18s have, in my view, the same need for protection from discrimination as adults – if not more. How young people and children are treated shapes them for the rest of their lives. If treated with respect – they will grow up respectful. It was a very long argument – but once again – the Government maintained it was just fine if children had to put up with being shunted around to suit the system rather than their needs.

The BBC then came into the debate in the form of a probing amendment that sought to find out whether they would be subject to the public sector equality duty in their programming. The Minister assured the Committee that the duty applied only to that which was outside of the content of their programming. Phew!