The 20th Anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence was an appropriate day for the House of Lords to reject the Government’s attempt to repeal the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s General Duty. It has since been reported that the Government may accept defeat and end their plans to remove the duty. If confirmed, that would be a significant victory.
Section 3 of the Equality Act 2006 sets out the central mission of the Commission, to fulfil its functions so as to encourage and support the development of a fairer society. Without the general duty the EHRC would retain its ability to report on its specific functions and work but would be much less able to report and commentate on the overall progress of society towards fairness. The attempt at repeal was contained in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill currently going through Parliament.
The proposed repeal is one of a number of Coalition attacks on equalities work. It is also downgrading the importance of equality impact assessments in the consideration of Government decisions, it is ‘reviewing’ the general Public Sector Equalities Duty, and it has slashed the EHRC’s budget from £70m at inception to less that £27m in 2015.
These ‘reforms’ did not come out of a principled review of the Equalities legislation or its effectiveness but from the so-called ‘Red Tape Challenge’. To have the whole structure of equalities law and implementation in this country reduced to an argument about red tape was extraordinarily offensive. It also told us a lot about this Government.
Despite standing next to Doreen Lawrence at Stephen’s memorial service, David Cameron has led the attack. In his speech to that bastion of fairness, the CBI, in November 2012, Cameron attacked ‘bureaucratic rubbish’. He said the Government would free up decision-making by cutting back on judicial reviews, reducing government consultations, and ‘stopping the gold-plating of legislation’. His example of ‘gold-plating’ was the Equalities Act and he cited the ‘reams of pointless reports’, by which he meant equality impact assessments. After all, he said, ‘We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making the policy.’ Well, they hadn’t done very well in the previous century had they?
There is great concern that the Government has its eyes on the repeal of the Public Sector Equality Duty, the general obligation on all public bodies to have regard to equalities issues in fulfilling their functions. It is undertaking a review. The duty, as the TUC has argued, is particularly critical in a time of cuts, where the impact of reduced services is likely to be felt by some groups more than others. The TUC has produced an excellent guide. It has its roots in the Macpherson Inquiry which found the Metropolitan Police to be ‘institutionally racist’ in the aftermath of Stephen’s murder.
Equalities work is being constantly undermined. Eric Pickles evidently thinks equality impact assessments and equalities monitoring are intrusive and unnecessary. Defeating the Government’s attempt to remove the broad remit of the EHRC is important, but they should be aware that they will face an even bigger battle if they come back with a proposed repeal of the Public Sector Equalities Duty.