Caste adrift

Here’s a column I’ve written for Liberal Democrat News:

The Channel 4 fly-on-the wall series, The Family, is about an Indian family – the Grewels. The wife of one of the sons hasn’t spoken to her own mother for over five years because her mother did not approve of her choice of husband. The Grewels believe that their daughter-in-law was rejected by her mother because their son was not from a high enough caste – that rigid system of social groups determined by birth or occupation.

Whilst we might well disapprove of this situation, we would think it inappropriate for the law to intervene in what is essentially a family matter. However, it is a very different situation when it is a matter such as a doctor refusing to treat a patient in the NHS because they are from the “wrong” caste – if that were to be the case.

So whilst the issues around caste have their roots in society – and much of the issue is not a matter for law – this is not an issue the law should continue turning such a blind eye too.

That is why I moved an amendment at Committee stage of the Equality Bill which would make it against the law to discriminate on grounds of caste, just as it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, gender and so on.

Labour refused to support the amendment, claiming there is no problem that needs fixing. But they have consulted essentially those organizations which condone the caste system. No surprise then they said there wasn’t a problem!

However, in my closing statements to that stage of the Bill, I did manage to get the Government to agree that if new evidence came forward – they would consider it.

So the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance began the research to provide new evidence to submit for the next stage of the Equality Bill. The findings from the new study were published last week.

The new report shows that caste discrimination is rife in the UK, with more than half of those from traditionally lower-status Asian backgrounds finding themselves victims of prejudice and abuse. The findings show that the caste system is evident in education, the work place and health and that thousands of people are affected.

Of the 300 people surveyed fifty-eight percent said they had been discriminated against because of their caste and 79% said that if they tried to report a caste-related ‘hate crime’ the police would not actually understand.

The findings are significant, and whilst the law is already in place to address cultural horrors such as honour killings (criminal law) and forced marriages (civil law), there is nothing to protect those who find themselves the victim of caste discrimination in less dramatic circumstances.

From the report, it is clear that discrimination on grounds of caste is occurring, for example, in the provision of public services. The report is illustrated with evidence such as a physical therapist refusing to treat someone of low caste and many tales from under 12s who have been subject to discrimination because of their caste at school – not just by fellow pupils but also by some teachers.

These days Catholic adoption agencies may not discriminate on religious grounds as to who they will place a child with. It is now illegal to refuse to register a civil partnership. There are many examples of conscience and belief no longer being an acceptable reason to refuse the provision of a public service to someone entitled to it.

The world has changed and we are grappling with finding the right dividing line between the freedom to practice beliefs and customs and the consequences of that freedom.

But public services are just that – a service for the public – and not something to be given or withdrawn based on personal likes and dislikes or beliefs.

Let’s hope the Government now acts on the evidence before them of caste discrimination in the public services and more widely.

Caste Discrimination and the Equality Bill

I moved an amendment at Committee stage of the Equality Bill which would make it against the law to discriminate on grounds of caste. The Bill moves to protect a number of ‘protected characteristics’ such as sexual orientation, disability, race, age and so on – but not caste. The Government would have none of it. As far as they were concerned they had seen no evidence. They had consulted – and there was no evidence in the responses of any problem.

Of course – the Government had consulted with essentially those organisations who condone the caste system – therefore (as I pointed out to the Minister) it was hardly surprising that the responders found there to be no problem.

I did, however (a bit cleverly I thought) in my closing statements to that stage of the Bill get the government to agree that if further evidence came forward – they would consider it. It’s in Hansard. They said they would!

So – I tabled another amendment to include caste in the ‘protected characteristics’ for Report Stage – which will hopefully be scheduled to come to the floor of the Commons soon after the Queen’s Speech. I hope the Speaker selects it for debate – but it may not get selected – in which case the next opportunity comes when the Bill is debated in the Lords.

So – action stations the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance and Caste Watch – two organisations who then took up the challenge to go get the much needed evidence.

Yesterday – the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance had an event in Parliament to launch the Report of that evidence. It is compelling. It is quite clear that caste discrimination exists in the UK. There are legions of examples – all put together in ten weeks. The evidence is compelling – so hopefully – the Government who said that they would consider any evidence coming forward will now bring forward their own amendment to include caste.

Fingers crossed!