Grayling shows Tories still don't get it

Yes – of course – there are great sensitivities around how to give everyone religious freedom to believe their doctrines and live their lives according to that doctrine whilst at the same time ensuring equality and freedom from discrimination. That is one of the great challenges that we have to meet – and it reared its head constantly in the Equality Bill.

However, in the end, the provision of goods and services must be provided on an equal basis to all. That is where Chris Grayling has failed to understand the real nature of equality. It will mean, for example, for those Christians who believe it is against their religion or belief to rent facilities to homosexuals – will not be able to exclude gay couples.

That is a clear example of where the line is drawn. There are more complex ones – particularly in employment where I know Churches feel it is entirely their business who they employ and they want to employ Christians. The line here is drawn to allow discrimination in the employment of someone who is involved in the liturgical side of the Church – but not in ordinary jobs within that establishment. For example – obviously the Vicar, priest and youth leaders who have a duty to teach will be discriminated in favour of for those jobs – but a caretaker, accountant, etc will not. That is the line that the law draws.

The problem with what Grayling said – apart from the substance itself – is that it reveals (just as Cameron’s stuttering performance when being interviewed on gay issues demonstrated) that the Tory Party in its heart still doesn’t believe in equality.

You hear it in the Chamber. During the Equality Bill, I was speaking about the need for protection under the law for those with gender identity issues. From the Tory backbenches I could hear the cries of ‘filthy perverts’.

So – yes – there are huge sensitivities and challenges in achieving a way through that values and frees Christians and others to observe their faith – whilst protecting the rights of all to equal treatment under the law.

Labour U-turn on mandatory retirement age

I thought the Today Program had good researchers – but listening this morning and hearing that the Government says there was no support for abolishing the mandatory retirement age during the Equality Bill is rubbish.

I, myself, raised it in Second Reading:

My last point about age discrimination and matters mandatory is that I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government have retained a mandatory retirement age. It seems completely wrong. I am surprised, as it is clearly discriminatory to decide on an arbitrary age as a cut-off. I heard what the Leader of the House said about the default retirement age being on a separate track, but the issue should be included in the Bill.

Moreover, at Committee Stage, I tabled an amendment to end this arbitrary discrimination against older people. Obviously individuals should have the right to choose when to stop working.

And, my LibDem colleague, Lord Anthony Lester, who is leading in the Lords on the Equality Bill (and whose life work has been equalities) has been pushing the Government very hard on this too.

I’m very glad that the Government have now seen sense but am fed up that when the LibDems lead the way –  the BBC fails to report accurately.

Anyway – hurrah – in the end the right thing has come about.

Harriet Harman's u-turn!

Lying in bed watching the news – well blow me – Harriet has done a u-turn. Hurrah!

Harriet has suddenly been converted and announced that the mandatory retirement age is no longer to be compulsory – and I assume she will put it through in the Equality Bill – which is currently in the Lords.

Shame when I brought this forward at Second Reading of the Equality Bill in the Commons she was incapable of agreeing with me then.

As  I said from the front bench to Harriet during the Equality Bill Second Reading on May 11:

“My last point about age discrimination and matters mandatory is that I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government have retained a mandatory retirement age. It seems completely wrong. I am surprised, as it is clearly discriminatory to decide on an arbitrary age as a cut-off. “

As ever – Labour are having to play catch up to the LibDems!

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.

Equality Bill – Report Stage and 3rd Reading

Today the Equality Bill returns to the floor of the Commons on which I lead for the Liberal Democrats. Report stage brings back key issues that didn’t get voted on at Committee Stage and also gives an opportunity for the whole of the House to table amendments to the Bill.

Sadly – the Government organises business in that it is quite clear from the order of the amendments and New Clauses chosen that the Government does not want the issue of equal pay to get an airing. It has been moved down the list to the point where, in the derisory few hours the Government has allowed for this debate, it won’t be reached and will simply fall – as will most of the issues that the Government wants to avoid.

So much for any real change in the way politics is done!

So much for an 'exemplar' Bill

Harriet Harman declared that the Equality Bill would be exemplar. Part of its examplarness (if that’s a word) would be that the Government would consult the opposition benches over how to handle the debate when it came to the floor of the House for Report Stage and Third Reading – which it does next Wednesday.

However, there had been no discussions, consultations or anything – just an announcement that the Bill would be on the floor of the House on 2 December – a derisory one day only. This means that the dozens of amendments and New Clauses that are down for debate won’t even get discussed. For only one day – and almost certainly a statement after Wednesday’s PMQs on Afghanistan – will mean that we will be lucky to get a few hours.

Report Stage is not just about the Government getting its amendments and New Clauses down and through -but it is the only chance back-benchers get to put down their amendments and debate the issues.

So in Business Questions today, I along with many other MPs asked Harriet to extend the time to allow proper scrutiny. Harriet was disingenuous about the ‘discussions’ and led the House to believe that they had taken place when they had not. Moreover, in her view there was plenty of time and it appeared as if she thought we were all making a terrible fuss over nothing.

Exemplar – I don’t think so.

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!

'Politician of the Year' nomination for MP Lynne Featherstone

Local MP Lynne Featherstone has been nominated for the award of ‘Politician of the Year’ by Stonewall, the national lesbian and gay rights lobby group.

Lynne has been a champion of gay rights in Parliament and outspoken critic of the Government’s Equality Bill, which fails to explicitly outlaw harassment of young people in schools because of their sexuality – gay bullying. She has also fought for greater protection against discrimination for transgendered people in the new law.

The awards ceremony with take place on Thursday, 5th November at the V&A and celebrate “the range of positive contributions being made by the individuals and organisation to the lives of lesbian and gay people in Britain today”.  The judges are Sue Perkins and Evan Davis.

Lynne Featherstone is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Youth & Equalities.

Commenting, Lynne says:

“I feel greatly honoured to be nominated for an award by such a prestigious and respected organisation.

“Whilst great steps have been made in gay rights; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people still face discrimination in their everyday lives. Whether I win or not I will continue fighting for a fairer society.”

The Equality Bill – will it deliver for women?

Here’s my speech to a Lib Dem conference fringe meeting organised by the Fawcett Society and Unison:

Will it deliver for woman? No! Not on your nelly! Women are the losers from the lost opportunity of the Equality Bill.

This was literally a once in a lifetime chance to make a step change in women’s lives – but instead of taking the opportunity – perhaps the last opportunity a whole generation of Labour politicians will have to wield Parliamentary power – they’ve run scared of anyone who says “boo”, condemning women to hideously unequal pay for another generation.

A small, very, very, small bit of good crept through on women’s pay – stopping employers from banning staff from talking about their pay – ending finally those bans that let discriminatory pay, wasteful pay be hidden away under clauses of legal secrecy.

But that only frees up the hardiest and doughtiest of campaigners to fight that little bit more for more equal pay.

There were three key amendments put forward by the Liberal Democrats, one jointly with two Labour back benchers on equal pay for the Bill – each on of which would have ensured that the move towards equal pay would come quicker and more widely and for everyone.

Firstly we argued for mandatory pay audits – exposing the overall patterns of pay (though not individual salaries) to public scrutiny.

It’s ironic that opponents of equal pay measures often argue that in the market place there can’t be discrimination – because those firms discriminating would be worse off.

Yet when here was the opportunity to strengthen those market pressures – to give the market more information just as free market theorists tell us the markets need – where were those people? They made themselves very, very scarce from the debates!

The Government’s proposal only suggests that the information be published voluntarily until at least the year 2013. As the Equal Pay Act was passed 39 years ago and women are still – on the latest Office of National Statistics figures – paid 17% less then men – we are sick of waiting – always jam .

So instead of this weak measure, I and my colleagues argued that for reasonable sized firms and up – 100 employees would be a good cut-off – there should be mandatory audits with public results so women – or indeed men – could bring claims and avoid companies as they see fit.

The Equality Commission has most recently been making some bullish noises about the size of the pay gap in the City – warning that if it doesn’t get its act together the Commission will have to use its statutory powers.

And yet – the Commission flunked the test when the Bill was going through Parliament – for where was its lobbying and campaigning for effective equal pay measures in the Bill?

The second key area which we argued for during the Bill’s passage – in addition to mandatory pay audits – was on loosening some of the ridiculously tight restrictions on legal action over equal pay.

For women wanting to prove sexual discrimination in pay they have to be able to give a concrete example of someone else in a comparable job, being paid more. Now –often that exact comparator doesn’t exist. Many people do jobs where there isn’t someone else in a comparable role – and of the opposite gender.

But no – Labour dug its heels in and insisted there must always be a direct comparator that you can use.

And thirdly – there was the issue of allowing ‘representative action’. Currently, if a woman believes she has been discriminated against in terms of pay she can take the claim to an employment tribunal.

But you have to be quite brave and assertive to take a claim forward – and the resources for tribunals etc are so inadequate that there is currently a backlog of women waiting – and waiting – and waiting.

Thousands and thousands of women are held in this backlog – and women have actually died waiting for justice.
The answer to this is simple – allow representative actions, which means one action can cover and so settle many situations – speeding up justice, taking the pressure off each individual and saving the system from breakdown.

With representative action people such as a trade union or indeed the Equality Commission would be able to take action on behalf of a group of people in the same situation. But again the Government resisted this most obvious of moves forward.

Three opportunities – three fails – from the Government – and the price paid in more years of unequal pay.

Equality in a cold climate

Here’s my speech to the Stonewall/DELGA fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth:

When we talk about gay rights in a cold climate – a chill wind is blowing. And I suspect that the temperature is in danger of dropping sharply –in terms of what will happen to the funding both in terms of outreach, support and gay health

LGBT organisations rely on three main sources of income:

– government grants
– private donations
– corporate sponsorship

I don’t have to tell people in the room who are involving in local Government about the bleak funding future ahead of us. As basic services get squeezed the axe will most certainly turn to external funding where cuts will not be so immediately felt.

If you stop collecting rubbish people notice pretty quickly, but this is not the case when it comes LGBT support groups.

Private individuals have inevitably become less generous as household finances become shakier. Even the pink purse isn’t recession proof.

And as companies’ profit margins have evaporated, so does their benevolence.

So what can we do about it?

It is a point I make time and time again – you must spend to save.

A difficult argument when the economy is in dire straits, but now more than ever should this case be made.

Where any of us have a seat at a table where financial decisions are made we must make the case for continued funding. We must make the case for well-targeted projects that support the gay community.

Providing condoms and lube in every gay pub, club and sauna makes HIV/AIDS less likely to be spread.

Spending money to promote clear public sexual health messages saves money on treatment.

Creating safe places for confused teenagers to come to terms with his or her sexuality makes for productive and well-adjusted adults.

I salute the work Stonewall has done in making sexuality an issue of good business. Going out there and making the business case for companies to take the issues of gay people seriously and also dealing with business perceptions.

But further afield one real protection against any roll back to gay rights is by enshrining them in law.

As the Equality Bill currently wends it’s way through Parliament, as Liberal Democrats I sometime feel we have been a bit of a lone voice in arguing for what I believe is full LGBT equality.

I won’t bore you with commentary on the whole 205 clauses, but there have been two main bones of contention, transgender issues and second class treatment of gay discrimination rights.

The transgender community continues to be ostracised. Even some parts of the gay community can be a bit snooty about transgender issues.

Maybe this is partly this is because some gay people see their issues been unfairly lumped into one basket, but sometimes I wonder if there is simply lack of empathy.

The Government, however, displayed complete ignorance of transgender issues. They showed relentless and ill-informed determination to keep as one of the protected strands ‘gender reassignment.

They seemingly did not understand or even wish to understand the complexities of the range of the spectrum of gender identity.

They had no awareness that many, many trans people never change sex nor even ultimately pass for the other gender nor even go on that journey nor that some people are just intersex in some form and that those who have gender identity issues will experience discrimination and need protection because they don’t fit gender stereotypes at all.

The current case of 800 metres world champion, Caster Semanya of South Africa highlights just one of the complexities. But the Government completely refused to change the title of that protected characteristic to ‘gender identity’ thereby leaving swathes of people unprotected by the soon to be new laws.

The second point, one that I know I don’t share with Stonewall – and I know this because I questioned Ben when he gave Evidence to the bill committee and he told me so! – is to do with what I call the second class treatment of gay protection.

I think lots of gay people would be surprised to learn that harassing a pupil because of their sexuality is not explicitly outlawed in schools. And just so we understand – harassment in this context means intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive behaviour.

It is rightly explicitly illegal to harass a pupil because of their race, their gender or if they have a disability, but it is not explicitly illegal to harass a pupil because of his or her sexuality.

Direct discrimination is banned and it is thought this will give sufficient protection, but for me a question mark remains as why you wouldn’t put something as important as this in big letters on the face of the Bill – young gay people should not bullied in school. End of!

There should not be a hierarchy between different types of discrimination and we shouldn’t want to slip gay rights in the Bill through the backdoor, no pun intended.

I’ve lost a few skirmishes on these issues in Parliament, but the battle is not over until the fat lady sings, more correctly until Her Majesty gives royal assent.

Then we come to blood.

If any of you were here last year you may remember that I raised the issue of the blanket ban on gay men giving blood and that this as an issue that we needed to campaign on. I am delighted to say that Stonewall changed its position to support our view which 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.

Sadly – the government disagrees. Perhaps Stonewall can use their influence behind the front lines on this one.

I hope that give you all a brief assessment what I think the key issues are, I look forward to hearing from the rest of the panel and answering your questions.