Last Session of Equality Bill

The 19th and 20th sitting of the Equality Bill. Hurrah – the last chapter – at least of the Bill Committee.

The big issue of the morning session was my amendment – well new clause – which would insert an Equality Guarantee into the Bill. The problem with the Bill is that it is very prescriptive. The protection from discrimination is delivered to strands – otherwise known as ‘protected characteristics’. As have explained before – these are things like race, gender, sex, sexual orientation and so on. What the Bill doesn’t do is guarantee equality and protection from discrimination if you fall outside of the very precise prescriptions within the Bill. Hence the Equality and Human Rights Commission lobbied for the inclusion of an over-arching Equality Guarantee.

Both Labour and Tories just picked it to pieces in terms of the minutiae of relatively small technical matters or drafting – clever dick stuff – but ignoring the key point. And as I said in Committee – the Bill lacks any real vision for equality on the wider scale. It brings together existing legislation in one place and makes some progress in terms of equality but not much. An Equality Guarantee is very similar to the Human Rights Act in that it gives overarching protection against inalienable rights. But no – how dare I suggest that the legislation might not be perfect and there be any situation or unintended consequence that would allow a Law Lord ten years down the track to make a judicial decision that would undo all the good that was intended in this Bill.

But this is exactly what happened to the Disability Discrimination Act. I am referring to what is called the ‘Malcolm’ case. Without going into long explanations – the Disability Discrimination Act came into being to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. In the Malcolm case the Law Lords made a decision that totally undermined and screwed up the entire intention of that Act. It has taken three years to sort out – and thousands of people with disabilities were put at risk by the intention of the Bill not being clear. Hence an overarching Equality Guarantee would put it beyond doubt that we all have a right to equality before the law and equality in our lives and protection from discrimination. However, the Solicitor General was absolutely confident that we needn’t worry and that such a thing was so unlikely to happen that it would be ridiculous to put such a Guarantee into this Bill. And so on. And so on……………………….

Tim Boswell (Tory) tabled a similar thing – although not so broad and over-arching – but something called a ‘purpose clause’ which basically is a statement of the intention behind the Bill so that a judge, if something one day was unclear, could look at this ‘purpose clause’ and understand the intention of the Bill. Vera Baird was more polite to Tim than myself – but equally dismissed it.

In the afternoon and very last session of the Committee there was an amendment about not inquiring of applicants for jobs as to whether they had a disability. Not unlike my anonymous job applications in theory. Disability organisations have lobbied members of the committee because their experience is that employers do discriminate against applicants with a disability – whether or not that disability would detract from their ability to do the job.

Anyway – that was it. The tradition then is that all the leads of the parties thank everyone, clerks, officials, the committee, the other leads etc etc for a wonderful debate and so on. Vera Baird summed up on the key issues that the Government has promised to consider (change) and come back with hopefully their own amendments at Report Stage which will be in the autumn session.

I quote:

Solicitor-General: However, I have agreed to consider five matters: whether to include various fire and rescue bodies in the socio-economic duty, as proposed by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green; the clarification, if necessary, of the asymmetric nature of disability protection in clause 13(3); the issue around the case of Malcolm and whether we need to make the protection in clause 14 clearer; the case for representative actions; and, very recently, whether to limit the use of pre-employment disability questionnaires. That is a little survey of the work that I still have to do before we gather again on Report. I will seriously consider all those proposals.

I reminded the Minster of the DWP work on anonymous job applications too! So – quite a lot of the arguments we have had in Committee have born fruit – but not nearly enough. So there will be lots to bring back at Report Stage. The issues that the Government needs to change their mind on are things like: the gender pay gap; the issue of discrimination in the caste system; harassment in terms of homophobic bullying not being protected in the clashes with religious freedoms; gender reassignment needing to become gender identity as reassignment has been used in previous terms to indicate sex change – and this needs to be much broader; anonymous job applications and lots lots more. Some exciting new issues to come in the autumn too – as Evan and I are bringing forward the issue of Royal Accession to the Throne – where we feel and have both campaigned on – the discrimination both in the bar against Catholic accession and the tradition of females dropping back in succession in favour of younger born males.
Way to go……………………

What’s in a name?

Here’s my latest column from the Ham & High:

I had two interns a while back whose surnames were Hussein and Patel. They were bright as buttons and went on to get very good jobs – one at the Ministry of Defence and the other in public relations.

Prior to coming to my office they told me that they had applied for hundreds of jobs but not even got through to the interview stage. Now much as I’d like to hope that my interns get valuable experience – after all, that is the point – it was a striking change that once they’d got “worked for an MP” to put on their CV they suddenly got much more interest from would-be employers.

So that got met thinking that there might be a discard of applications because of an unconscious bias – a bias that is only beaten back when there’s a strong contrary hook in the CV for people to latch on to. If that’s the case, then the answer is simply – move to anonymous job applications where the application is processed, at least until interview stage, using a reference number with the name withheld.

Without a name the ethnicity, gender and age of the applicant would be hidden – and the application would be judged on its merit in terms of qualifications and experience. Of course, when it comes to interview, all would be revealed. But once an applicant is in the room – they’ve got a chance to show what they’re made of.

We give children numbers to write on their exam papers to ensure that there is absolutely no bias in marking. This is really the same kind of thing. And it’s also what some employers do at the moment.

I floated my thesis in the second reading of the Equality Bill and it caused quite a hoo ha in the employment world. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development supported the idea – although did not believe it should be mandatory. Some in the human resource industry thought it was a stupid idea – though I was a bit surprised that some said it couldn’t be done, given some firms are doing this already!

Undeterred, at the Committee stage of the Bill I tabled an amendment that would see this brought into law. The Solicitor General, Vera Baird (Labour Minister) – after sneering for a bit as is apparently mandatory when a good idea comes from an opposition MP – admitted that the Department of Work and Pensions was doing some survey work to find out if my theory was correct. She said she was sorry to tantalise the committee as the work would not be finished until the summer – but initial findings showed ‘significant discrimination’.

I was really excited – because if there is a big problem here – then the use of anonymous CVs is a really simple, effective (and low cost!) way of fixing it. And so many benefits flow from removing discrimination in the job market in terms of opening up opportunities and spreading wealth – brining pluses such as greater social cohesion and economic efficiency which we all benefit from.

Then the Mail on Sunday gets the wrong end of the stick and blasts the Government for carrying out this research. Well excuse me – but research to see if a change in the law is required sounds pretty sensible to me – especially on an issue as important as discrimination in employment practices. The Mail quoted various grumpy employers not liking the idea that research is being done to check whether discrimination is taking place – but if that’s the case they shouldn’t have anything to fear from the research. And a smart employer would also know the depth of scientific research that already exists into the myriad of subtle ways that biases and discrimination can creep into human decision-making processes – as seen in bestselling books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

Blimey – this is a proposal that actually won’t cost business any money and might drastically improve the situation for applicants for jobs – bringing fairness and equality – and still they moan.

So what’s in a name? Quite a lot!

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.

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!

Equality Bill: equal pay

There were four sessions of the Equality Bill Committee last week, so for this post I’ve picked out the arguments around unequal pay between men and women. So to the normal anonymous commentators who take exception whenever I blog about discrimination about women – I expect to hear from you shortly!

First up – hypothetical comparators. When you bring a case for discrimination in pay, currently the woman has to point to a similar job being done by a man – i.e. there has to be a real comparator to prove discrimination. This is quite different to any other case you can bring on discrimination. If you are black and believe you have been discriminated against – you don’t need a comparator at all – for example.

The reason this continually comes up as an issue – and as a barrier to women being able to bring claims – is that there are many jobs that are almost solely done by women – dinner ladies, lots of carer jobs, seamstresses etc. Traditionally these ‘women’s’ jobs have been paid poorly as women’s work has always borne the stigma of not being as important as men’s work and consequently is paid at a lower rate.

I am not sure why the Government continues to resist the introduction of the ability to use a hypothetical comparator. However, resist the Solicitor General did. My arguments weaved around the fact that there often isn’t ‘evidence’ because men don’t do the comparator work – and so insisting on a traditional comparator locks out whole areas of possible discrimination from action. This argument has been put many, many times by others before. It is used elsewhere quite commonly to resolve the issue around women’s work not having a comparator. And it is clearly outrageous that it is only in discrimination in women’s pay that a real comparator is required. So – shame on the Government on this one!

Another big issue was Clause 73 – gender pay gap information. This is the one you may have heard about – and is the Government’s proposal that companies of over 250 people will have to publish the pay patterns for their male and female employees – so that employees can see for themselves if they are being discriminated against and external bodies like the Equality and Human Rights Commission can judge if there is systemic discrimination.

Problem from my point of view is this clause only suggests that the information be published and leaves it as voluntary until at least the year 2013. As the Equal Pay Act was passed 39 years ago and women are still paid 17% less then men for equal work – we are sick of waiting.

So instead of this weak measure, the Lib Dems think there should be compulsory pay audits – and that if companies (and we think over 100 employees would be a much better number to encompass a reasonable proportion of the population 80% of whom work in the private sector) had to publish this information – women would be able to bring claims as they could see if they were unfairly paid. So could men for that matter.

So our argument is about letting employers off the hook for another four years. And as I pointed out to the Minister – we don’t know what hue the next government will be and if (heaven forefend) it is a Tory government – then hell would freeze over before they introduced the compulsory element.

I used many a persuasive argument. Some of the Labour backbenchers in committee agreed with me. But the Minster was determined to keep it voluntary – referring continually to the CBI, the Equality Commission and the Government agreeing on ‘metrics’ by which progress could be measured. So – I might as well have been whistling Dixie as the Minster was set in stone and clung to somehow this all being alright in the future.

Then 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. Firstly – you have to be quite brave and assertive to take a claim forward. Secondly, 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. There is nothing in the Bill that increases resources – and that would not be the whole answer anyway.

The proposed amendment would allow ‘representative action’. This would mean that if there were other women who were discriminated against in the same way – they could be represented as a group by either the trade unions or indeed the Equality Commission. But again the Government resisted this most obvious of moves forward – backed as they proudly claimed by the CBI.

Well – we were backed by all the women’s’ organisations you can imagine – who are just sick of warm words from the Government but no real action. For we don’t just need laws about equal pay – there also needs to be the ability to bring cases.

The Government, I think, got the message – as the Solicitor General said they were going to consult (again) and whilst she attacked me stridently over the suggestion during the debate – at the end she conceded that they would probably be able to bring something along these lines back in the autumn when the legislation passes to the Lords for its scrutiny there.

So – we fight on – and will bring some of these key issues back at the Report Stage of the Bill in the Commons chamber. The Government is clearly in thrall to the CBI and refuses to take the steps that would deliver equal pay. How can a Labour government fail so monumentally – even if only as their legacy – to deliver this most important of steps towards equal pay for women?

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!

Following the Equality Bill through Parliament

OK – so am going to try and blog the process of legislation through the Equality Bill. To date – we have had the First Reading of the Bill (a formality) and then the Second Reading , which happens in the chamber of the House of Commons and where the Bill overall is debated. We have had ‘evidence’ sessions where witnesses (groups with particular interest in the Bill) give their views on parts of the Bill and we get to questions them. And now we have entered the Committee Stage where we (a smaller group of MPs) scrutinise the legislation line by line.

If this gets too long-winded or onerous I will cease – but as I write so often about local issues – thought it might interest some to see the Parliamentary process at work.

The Bill is gone through in order and we, the Tories and the Government, table amendments to the Bill and some are selected each session of the Committee for.

The key issues that came up in the first sessions were:

– the “socio-economic duty”: this would be a new duty on, for example, local councils to consider the impact of their decisions and spending on the gap between rich and poor, and to try to reduce these socio-economic divides where possible.
– which bodies should be covered by this new duty: it would apply to parts of ‘the state’ but how narrowly or broadly should the net be cast?
– the “protected characteristics” – that is, those categories which would be protected by this Bill from discrimination, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

The socio-economic duty is something that the Government bunged in at the last minute. All parties believe narrowing the socio-economic gap is important – but the Tories feel it shouldn’t be in this particular Bill. We Liberal Democrats think it is one of the greatest and most intractable of inequalities – but that this duty is somewhat tokenistic. We have no objection to the good it might do – but believe it far too weak to really deliver change.

When we got to debating the Government’s list of authorities that would come under this duty, the Government was disposed to accept/look at two of my amendments which question why the Greater London Authority bodies like the Fire Authority, the Metropolitan Police Authority and Transport for London were excluded when they are clearly making strategic decisions that can affect the socio-economic status. Ditto for fire authorities across the country.

The ‘form’ for amendments is that even if the Government agrees with them, they don’t support them at the Committee Stage, but instead say they will introduce similar amendments of their own at the subsequent Report Stage. Sometimes this can be for good reasons (they can get their lawyers to pour over the wording to ensure it’s just right) but sometimes also there is a touch of “if it hasn’t got our name on it, we won’t support it” about it all.

Anyway – the Government said they will bring back their own amendments on these issues, so it looks as if the changes I was asking for will end up in the Bill – hurrah!

What would it mean in practice? Well, consider the example of a fire authority making decisions about its fire prevention efforts. The duty would require them to consider the different risks in areas arising from how deprived they are – for example, in poorer areas there may be fewer firm alarms, buildings may be less fireproof, more use of paraffin heaters etc. If it then turns out some areas are therefore at greater risk of fires and death from fires – then they’d have to take this into account when planning their fire prevention work.

Then we debated the list of ‘protected characteristics’ such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability etc – sometimes called the ‘equality strands’. We (Liberal Democrats) were proposing amendments to stop discrimination on the grounds of someone’s caste, their genetic make-up and family history, disadvantaged socio-economic status, paternity (discrimination on grounds of maternity or pregnancy is already covered, but not paternity) and on grounds of being a carer (people who have caring responsibilities are often discriminated against, for example by an employer who won’t take them on in case their caring responsibilities interfere with their work). And then there was the protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’ – which turned into a bit of an argy bargy.

All were tossed aside by the Minister (Vera Baird) with varying degrees of sympathy. Socio-economic disadvantage got short shrift as the Government couldn’t see how that could be measured – but I don’t see why given they can quantify poverty in terms of children who get free school dinners or the myriad measures of deprivation through which they give grants. We thought it would anchor the new socio-economic duty – as it is free floating and somewhat illogical without a strand.

They ummed and ahhed a bit about genetics as it clearly will be a problem down the line when the moratorium on insurance companies expires in 2014. Currently insurance companies are not allowed to use genetic information to guide their policies – so they can’t select some people and charge their higher premiums because of their genes for example. The sense of fairness behind the moratorium means it’s been widely supported – but although the Bill is the chance to settle the matter, the Government didn’t seem moved to do anything.

On caste – they were pretty unsympathetic – just saying they had tried to get evidence of discrimination because of caste but the organisations they had gone to (Hindu and Sikh) had said they were very against legal steps to outlaw caste-based discrimination and didn’t have evidence that it was needed. But I can’t help thinking that those who support a caste system might not want to volunteer evidence so that we can outlaw it. On carers – they were more sympathetic but didn’t feel it was necessary ultimately and that they would be covered by ‘association’ to someone who was disabled, old etc.

The protected characteristic currently in the list as ‘gender reassignment’ we wanted changed to ‘gender identity’. This is not a well understood area as the Bill clearly fails to understand the spectrum that exists on gender – where people can feel anything from confused, to any degree of transgender feeling, to – at the other end of the scale – gender reassignment and medical sex change. The wording in the Bill around ‘reassignment’ are all about a process leading to change, and so totally fail to encompass the wider range of situations, conditions and feelings that people have about their gender.

The Minister didn’t seem to know very much about this group of people. They are tiny in number and highly vulnerable as their ‘characteristic’ is barely understood, is reviled and joked about in the way that years ago occurred over other characteristics that we now take as mainstream. It is a hard challenge to grow up not having that certainty about gender that most of us are fortunate enough to not give a second thought to. However, Vera Baird showed no real comprehension of the complexities of this situation and could only argue defensively that ‘reassignment’ wasn’t medical but if you lived in another gender you would be protected. None of that deals with anyone at any stage before living as another gender – and many people with gender identity issues never get to such a place where they ‘change’ gender (whether by appearance or by surgery) – but can still be discriminated against as freakish in some way if they don’t present as male or female identifiably.

Anyway – we will return to that issue at Report Stage, I hope, as it is very important and I didn’t feel that the Minister really got it.

Enough for now!