The 17th and 18th sitting of the Equality Bill Committee

Coming towards the end of the line by line scrutiny of the Bill. Blogging the little bit of it that I have has been quite a struggle as there is so much to cover – and I simply can’t cover all of it. For those who are interested – the entire transcript of all the evidence sessions and committee sessions is on Hansard – so for those who want word by word of each moment – that’s the place for you.

The key issues in the 17th and 18th sessions were as follows.

There was an extraordinary response from Vera Baird, Solicitor General, to my Lib Dem colleague, Evan Harris’ amendment. This was all to do with the schools being exempted from protection afforded by this Bill. The problem is that this leaves in place, without change, the old laws that are in the School Standards and Framework Act. Here is a little bit of the discussion just at the beginning of this particular argument – to set the scene.

Dr. Harris: In the Bill we are dealing with the rights of people to not be discriminated against on one of the protected grounds. Section 60 of the School Standards and Framework Act arguably gives state schools the right to dismiss someone on the basis of their belief, their attendance at worship or their conduct. It is alleged by faith schools that conduct that is not consistent with those tenets, including private conduct related to sexual orientation, comes within sections 58 to 60. The Solicitor-General will know that when hon. Members debated the 2003 employment regulations, which are reproduced in the Bill, there was a long debate about the paragraph in those regulations that said that, notwithstanding the regulations, sections 58 to 60 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 will apply. Therefore, this is very much a live issue; that is what the provisions say.

So you can see – hopefully – where the argument lies. We Lib Dems think that this exemption should be got rid of as it allows discrimination to continue under that older Act. And there is an ongoing argument through many of the discussions about the protection for ‘religion and belief’ where there is a fundamental disagreement as ‘the tenets and beliefs’ of some religions are discriminatory – specifically that homosexuality is wrong. Blimey – we’ve just had a religious Christian leader saying that homosexuals need to repent and change on the news – which I think illustrates the point.

The Solicitor General’s response was thus:

The Solicitor-General: The UK negotiated the inclusion of article 4(2) of the framework directive with the intention of preserving the provisions in the School Standards and Framework Act, and we are satisfied that they are compliant. That provides for future legislation to allow differential treatment on religious grounds, where that reflects national practices and where there is a genuine, legitimate and justified occupational requirement. Nothing in the Act can be used to discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation, which would be unlawful in employment law.

Let me add — this is all that I intend to add — that we do not intend to override substantive education legislation in the Bill. There is no problem whatever, and we will not mend something that is not broken.

This was all she would say in response to eight key questions that exposed the very real harm that could prevail in schools if the Government’s exemption went ahead.

It is fine to disagree – the Government almost always does – but to be so contemptuous and not give a proper response I think is disgraceful and a good example of how the Government disdains real argument. When it can’t answer – it falls back on simply being rude!

Then there was then a bit of a row about scouts. The proposition was that you shouldn’t have to swear a religious oath to join – and examples are to be forthcoming from Evan Harris (which he will send to the committee) of volunteers (adult) who have been told just to take the oath but cross their fingers – as they are desperate for volunteers to run the scouts but many who would wish to are not of the right religion or are not religious. Government awaits the evidence!

An interesting discussion then ensued, based on two of Evan’s amendments. These were about discrimination in sport – most noticeably between men and women. It happens in a number of ways. For example – our women’s cricket team won the world cup – and got barely any coverage compared to what would have happened had it been the men’s team. So – it’s about the different attitude of the broadcasters. And to those who say that the broadcasters broadcast what people want to watch – the discrimination starts in the amount of women’s events compared to men’s. If you take one sport (like Olympic cycling) there are more men’s races than women’s. There is no reason for this and the consequence is that women’s cycling is secondary or perceived to be secondary to men’s cycling. There is no reason – physical or otherwise – for this discrepancy and the media broadcast what is there – so if there are less women’s events there will be less coverage.

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!

What have I been doing?

It’s gong to be a bit of a bitty blog for the next few weeks as went back to hospital for X-ray on Friday – only to be told that bone in hand is broken. So am now plastered – so to speak – which makes typing a pain. Am hoping to find someone to take dictation… Anyway – highlights:

– the Government on Friday talked out the Bill that my colleague Evan Harris introduced on the royals being able to marry Catholics and women not being shunted out of line to the throne by boy children. Government says it agrees – but once again I suspect action won’t follow. Wimps. They should have a look at the polling on the subject – overwhelming support for these changes!

– Friday evening went to address Lib Dems in Hitchin and Harpenden. The very able and active PPC, Nigel Quinton, picked me up from station – and embarrassingly had to cut up my food for me! I think they have the potential to do what Lib Dems did in Hornsey & Wood Green if they put in the base work before the election – whenever that comes. After the General Election – if they are the obvious alternative to the Tories – they could reap the benefit.

– Saturday I went to the induction of the new Rabbi at Highgate Synagogue. Rabbi Liss and his wife Shully are just lovely and I have no doubt that the Jewish community in Highgate will blossom and be very very happy. The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, was there as was his wife – so it was a big occasion. In responding to Rabbi Sach’s blessings, Rabbi Liss was very winsome and very human. The atmosphere in the synagogue was warm, friendly and very inspiring. Our Highgate Safer Neighbourhood team were there too and it is clear that Highgate synagogue is making real strides in being involved in the local community. I stayed about 2 1/2 hours but then had to leave (before the kiddush – drinks) to rush up to Westminster.

– there, I briefly joined the march for Jobs, Justice and Climate – but mainly because I got caught up in it whilst trying to get to my coders’ meet up for the new Lib Dem Technical Advisory Board. When I did arrive found room nearly full of men (have to give some thought as to why women are not coming forward as coders) but today this was the army whose skills and talents we are harvesting. Fantastic!

– Then met with Sarah Ludford MEP and a host of local Lib Dem activists to do some campaigning in Muswell Hill, followed by a speech in High Wycombe to possible future female MPs.

Who gets to be our monarch?

So – Gordon Brown is finally ‘having discussions’ about the antiquated customs that surround accession to the throne – the monarch not being able to marry a Catholic (Jews, Muslims and atheists are OK) and women get shunted out of line to the throne by the boys. So – hurrah! Except he is only doing it because my Lib Dem colleague Evan Harris, in his Private Members’ Bill today on this subject, is forcing the issue.

As indeed, I have forced it myself before. That time the Government conceded the issue – but said the Commonwealth was the sticking point. Labour has already says it would bring this in in a fourth term. Yes – stop laughing. Sometime never! The Bill is unlikely to get through today for Parliamentary reasons too tedious to go into, like Labour talking out the Bill or 100 MPs not being there for the Bill to pass etc. – Fridays are constituency days so most MPs go back to their area on a Thursday night, and unless the Government is going to let the Bill pass or – as with the recent Autism Bill – everyone agrees to turn up, nothing comes to pass.

There is a long line of MPs who have tried to get these most symbolic of inequalities ended including Jeffrey Archer, myself, Jo Swinson, Evan Harris and many others – but hopefully days are now numbered. I post the exchange in Parliament during questions last year on both Catholics and women:

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Here is a representation for the Minister. Next weekend, Peter Phillips is due to marry Autumn Kelly; she has had to convert to the Church of England to preserve his place in succession to the throne. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish the happy couple well on their big day, but would it not be better to send them a wedding present by using the equality Bill to abolish that institutional discrimination against Catholics?

Barbara Follett: I think that I will confine myself to congratulating the happy couple, and wishing them well in their marriage, which, as hon. Members know, requires a lot of adjustments on both sides at the beginning, middle and end.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): The Minister may be aware that I referred the case of Lady Louise being bumped out of line to the throne to the European Court of Human Rights, and it has responded positively, supporting the principle of getting rid of male primogeniture. The Solicitor-General made positive comments about that change being in the Act, and I congratulate the Government on that and welcome it. Does the Minister agree that it is very disappointing when those on the Tory Benches slide backwards and say that because it is difficult in the Commonwealth— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not for the Minister to concern herself with Conservative party policy. The hon. Lady has been called because she is a Liberal spokesman, so she should put her question to the Minister.

Lynne Featherstone: You are right, Mr. Speaker, as always. Will the Minister assure me that the difficulties of working this through the Commonwealth should not stand in the way of its being done? It is right that it should be done, and we have heard from all parties that it should be done, so will the Minister confirm that view?

Barbara Follett: This kind of change in our country, which has a long tradition, is always difficult. Before any change is brought in, we will try to build a cross-party consensus, and a cross-Commonwealth consensus. Primogeniture is a problem, and it is offensive, but we have to approach the matter cautiously.

Tackling discrimination against women and Catholics

Jammy dodger Evan Harris has come up seventh in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills. As for what the ballot is about – names get put in a hat, and then pulled out at random – and the lucky ones are giving some time in Parliament to introduce a Bill. You have to come near the top to have any chance of getting your Bill through. I enter each time – but have never been lucky enough – as yet.

Anyway – Evan is taking forward the accession issue (one I had some success with last year) that females are shunted out of line to the throne by males (‘primogeniture’ ) as part of his Bill. He is also bringing in the issue around Catholics being prohibited from sitting on the British throne.

It’s about time this ‘discrimination’ was eliminated. To me it’s a no-brainer. When I managed to get it on the agenda last year and forced the Government into having to say that it would act it seemed – from the discussion on the floor of the chamber – that there was (on the whole) cross -party agreement. The Tories, not surprisingly, were the least keen as I remember their spokesperson, Dominic Grieve, whilst giving it lukewarm support suggesting that it wasn’t important really.

Well – you can always say that something that affects so relatively few people is unimportant – but I would say that there is no clearer symbol of the message that goes out in this land – that women are second class citizens and the lack of impetus to change is demonstrable evidence of this.

No doubt the other chestnut that will raise its head will be ‘if we’re talking about accession – surely we should have the debate about whether there should be a monarchy at all’.

No, no, no, no – whatever views there are on becoming a republic – this is a separate issue. As long as we do have a monarchy we should ensure that it does not enshrine discrimination against women or Catholics. Way to go Evan!