Are you black or gay and feel your firm discriminates against you? Are you disabled and find a company stops your right of access? Are you woman and you don’t get equal pay with a man?
Naturally you might expect the government’s independent champion the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to be on your side and prosecute firms who repeatedly failed you.
But a pernicious piece of legislation now going the House of Lords plans to put all this at risk by putting a nasty spanner in the works to hobble the very body that is supposed to stand up for your rights.
The Deregulation Bill – promoted as liberating business from silly bureaucratic rules – includes what s
ounds like a rather arcane provision saying that all regulators for the first time must consider the impact on economic growth before they launch criminal or civil proceedings ( see clauses 83/84) against a company.
In other words if the EHRC doesn’t do this- big companies with loads of cash can take them to judicial review and get cases where they break the law on discrimination annulled. It would also make the EHRC – not the most radical of bodies – even more careful before it takes up your case.
The government are not planning to say until the law is passed which regulator – it could be anybody from the health and safety commission to English Heritage or the gas and electricity regulators- they will apply the rules. Only that they won’t be able to impose it on regulators in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
But a group of MPs and peers have already rumbled that the EHRC is one of the targets – and ministers have had to confirm that it is true.
The section by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the Deregulation Bill is coruscating about this .They say :”Applying the economic growth duty to the EHRC poses a significant risk to the EHRC’s independence…The Government is therefore risking the possibility of the EHRC’s accredited “A” status being downgraded and of putting the UK in breach of its obligations under EU equality law. This could be easily avoided if the proposed new duty did not apply to the EHRC. However, it would appear that the Government still intends to apply the economic growth duty to the EHRC and to attempt to deal with concerns about independence in another way.”
I gather peers when the bill is debated clause by clause from October 21 in the Lords intend to have a real go at the government for doing this.I can offer him one historical argument.
For cinema addicts there is great feel good film doing the rounds called Belle – see this link on Youtube – set in the eighteenth century about how a mixed race girl is adopted by the family of the Lord Chief Justice who has to rule on whether slaves who were deliberately drowned by a ships’owner were ditched cargo or human beings.
The main case for treating them as cargo and not recognising their rights as human being – was that slavery was big business and that English firms who shipped slaves in future could face economic ruin.In other words just as written in this 21st century bill – the lord chief justice – had to consider the economic consequences alongside human rights.
I am sure Helen Grant, the former equalities minister and now sports and tourism minister, who is of Nigerian and English heritage herself, would not condone the return of slavery to protect business for one moment.
But if she as a former equalities minister ignores this pernicious clause and does not urge her colleagues to exempt the EHRC from this legislation she is returning to the arguments of the eighteenth century. Like Belle in the film, her heritage is the same – except for being brought up in a Carlisle housing estate rather than in Kenwood in Hampstead.