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Campaign Urges MPs to Save Britain’s Equalities Mission Statement

Posted on the 12 April 2013 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

hepplepicCampaigners outraged at government plans to scrap a key feature of equality law have launched a campaign to lobby MPs.

The public service union PCS has begun a website for members of the public to directly lobby their local MPs to save Section 3 of the 2006 Equality Act which enshrined a mission statement to eliminate discrimination.

They argue that abolishing it will send a negative message to Britain’s public services that equality is no longer important.

You can visit the campaign page here . You can tweet the page using #saves3. 

Last month EMLD’s former chairperson Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece led a successful effort in the Lords to overturn the government plan to axe the ‘general duty’ on Britain’s equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to work towards the elimination of discrimination.

The Lords threw out the plan to axe the power, which is enshrined in Section 3 of the 2006 Equality Act, however the government want MPs to overturn that decision in a crucial vote planned for next Tuesday, 16th April.

Six Liberal Democrat peers voted against the government with others abstaining, and campaigners hope that Lib Dem MPs will follow the example of the Lords and also vote the plan down.

The government have included proposals to roll back equalities laws in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill claiming it is about slashing red tape but critics point out that no-one was calling for this change.

They argue that the ‘general duty’ is a much needed mission statement that does not add to bureaucracy but instead sets out a vital goal for Britain to aspire to.

Equalities law expert Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC (pictured) has spoken out strongly against the government plan in this PCS campaign video.

The lobbying website encourages people to enter their postcode which automatically finds their local MP, and asks them to simply click a button that sends the following message to them:

“I am writing as your constituent to urge you to maintain the House of Lords amendment to stop the repeal of the general equality duty (section 3 of the Equality Act 2006) when the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill returns to the House of Commons on Tuesday 16 April. The government is seeking to repeal the general equality duty as it believes that it ‘has been a hindrance rather than a help’.

However, experts in equality and human rights, staff at the EHRC, service users and key stakeholders are vociferous in their evidence-based opposition. They have argued since the possibility was first mooted in the 2011 government consultation ‘Building a fairer Britain: Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’, that to repeal the duty would be a catastrophic mistake and shows a fundamental misunderstanding about its purpose. The ratio of respondents to this government consultation that were against the repeal of section 3 was nearly 6:1.

The general duty gives effect to the purposes of the Equality Act 2006, providing a framework for the EHRC to exercise its powers. As stated by Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, it emphasised the importance of ensuring ‘that equality becomes better understood as a fundamental human right to be enjoyed together with other human rights, civil and political, and economic and social.’ Please use this link to watch this short video featuring Professor Sir Bob Hepple, Emeritus Master and Emeritus Professor of Law, explaining why Section 3 should not be repealed and the government’s arguments do not stack up. Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC challenged the government’s assertion that Section 3 ‘has no specific legal function’. At a Justice conference in June 2012, Professor Hepple said ‘This overlooks the functions of section 3 in providing a link between the aims of promoting equality and human rights and good relations between groups. Its repeal will deprive those applying the law of interpretative principles and will leave equality law rudderless’.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights in its 16th Report unanimously welcomed section 3 saying that it would serve in practice as a unifying factor in the performance of the EHRC’s duties under sections 8 to 11 of the Act. There was no opposition to the section 3 in the House of Commons. Eleanor Laing said ’the important thing is that we all admire the aspirational nature of the general duty within it.’

Removal of this duty will result in uncertainty and inconsistencies and destabilise general equality principles. The European Commission issued a report in 2010 on national equality bodies in which it stated that ‘In order to fully realize their potential in promoting equal treatment for all, equality bodies should develop a vision of their role within the administrative culture and society.’ The general equality duty provides this vision and the essential ‘rudder’ described by Professor Hepple.

As a United Nations ‘A status’ accredited human rights institution, the EHRC has a duty to monitor, advise and report to government and parliament on the human rights situation in Britain. This accreditation gives the EHRC full participation rights at the UN Human Rights Council and access to other UN bodies.

However, removing the general equality duty – its foundation stone – and cutting the budget by 76% and staffing to 62% since its inception, amounts to the effective closure of the EHRC as an independent non-departmental public body. The cuts to its powers and funding, especially the removal of section 3, jeopardises its UN ‘A’ status accreditation as it undermines the purpose and effectiveness of the body. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Nick Clegg, was happy to reassure Liberal Democrat MP and now BIS Minister, Jo Swinson MP, in 2011 that he would ‘resist the siren calls to water down the Equality Act’ by confirming that there would be ‘ be no move to dilute incredibly important protections to enshrine and bolster equality in this country under the guise of dealing with unnecessary or intrusive regulation.’

The diminution of equality provisions can do nothing but harm, particularly at this time of cuts and a heightened need for an independent equality and human rights body. I’d be grateful if you’d let me know whether you are supportive and will vote to stop the repeal. If you are going to vote for the repeal, I’d be grateful for a full response to this letter, focusing specifically on the points made by Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC in the video. I look forward to hearing from you.”

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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