Lynne Featherstone

MP for Hornsey and Wood Green

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What's coming in the Equalities Bill?

So – the long, long, long awaited Equalities Bill has arrived. As usual, media first – Parliament second. Published last Friday but embargoed until Monday – presumably so other parties can’t get hands on it to comment. I thought Harriet Harman was better than that – but given her office has refused to brief me or meet with me – should have known.

The man who wrote the book on equalities – Lord Lester – will be leading on the Bill in the Lords for the Liberal Democrats – but in the Commons, that job falls to me.

I notice that the Government has made a huge fanfare over its stance on pay audits. From the media it sounds as if mandatory pay audits will be introduced for large firms, but I suspect from the details it will be the same as before – voluntary for five years and then possibly mandatory after that. We will see when the details are finally unveiled to one and all!

Mandatory pay audits would be a really effective way of adding pressure to end discrimination in pay between men and women – as you can see from the example of Cambridge University. Their audit highlighted some big differences in pay – and so gave me the grounds to refer them to the Equalities Commission whilst also causing the university to hared down to Parliament to justify what they are doing – all in the knowledge that with this in the public domain, things can’t just be brushed under the carpet or not talked about.

The other ‘announcement’ in the Bill is a public duty to reduce the equality gap between rich and poor. Very laudable – the equality gap is widening and if you look at stats around the world you see that those countries that have less of a gap do much better on every scale – including happiness! The Tories will term this class war. I would say that the ambition is right but the methodology is wrong. Or rather – the equality gap should be narrowed – but by bringing the bottom up without lessening the universal services and their standards that all are entitled.

Sun 26 April 2009 Comments on this post (9)
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A nine-word summary of what is wrong with so much of our tabloid journalism

Now Labour plans to bar white men from jobs” – just one of the recent screaming tabloid headlines about the Equality Bill. What a fantastic nine-word summary of what is wrong with so much of our tabloid journalism: whipping up fear and division based on a fairy tale. I’m not sure what is worse – believing that the person who wrote the headline was so ignorant of the story they thought it was true – or so cynical they were happy to write it knowing it wasn’t.

Because the truth is there is no provision like that in the Equality Bill. Nowhere. All the Bill proposes is that if two different people are equally qualified for a job (and that is a very big if!), it should be ok to choose between them on gender or race grounds.

And why may you want to do that? Well, to take one example – there’s a real shortage of male teachers in primary schools. We all bang on about the need for more male role models for children at this stage. So why shouldn’t the law allow give the school the option if it wants (because yes – that’s all the Bill would do – it wouldn’t force this upon any organisation) to decide that faced with two equally qualified people, it wants to introduce a bit more balance amongst its teachers and employ a man? And if the school wanted just to ban white men regardless (or indeed black men – though notice how that didn’t make it into the headline) – then that would be illegal. End of story.

This sorry tale is though a good reminder as to how we can’t take the case for equality for granted – particular when there are Conservative MPs like Mark Pritchard jumping on the bandwagon happily exaggerating away and mirroring these fairytales too.

It is also a distraction in some ways from the big issue missing at the heart of the Bill – effective action to tackle the continuing discrimination in pay. So, the private sector – in which around 80% of the population work – will escape any form of mandatory measures to ensure that there is no discrimination in their workplaces – thus probably ensuring that the gender pay gap and the employment barriers that exist in race, disability and so on continue barely troubled by the Single Equality Bill.

Given that there are something like 120,000 cases waiting to be heard at equal pay tribunals this is not some trivial niche issue. That is approaching 200 cases per Parliamentary constituency. It should be a huge scandal, grabbing every MPs’ attention – but instead, it is overlooked and sidelined by our political system.

So I will aim to help push those better intentioned MPs in all parties to add in more effective measures to the Bill as it wends its way through Parliament. Lord Lester (our Lord Lester) who basically wrote the book on the equalities agenda is quite clear that mandatory pay audits are absolutely vital to deliver any sort of significant change.

What is to be welcomed in particular in the Bill, and which seems to have been agreed at the eleventh hour, is the inclusion of our older citizens into the public sector equality duty and following on from that – although no timetable was given – the end of discrimination against them in goods and services.

Helped the Aged – and others – have done some great work to illuminate just what goes on at the moment. Take two examples. First, the Disability Living Allowance. People aged 65+ who become disabled are not eligible to receive this allowance – they qualify instead for Attendance Allowance, which takes longer to qualify for and pays less. Second – car insurance, where it is seen as acceptable to charge people more for being old, regardless of their health or driving record. Charging more because someone is genuinely a higher risk – that would be fine– but simply assuming “old = risky driver” in the absence of evidence to back that up – that is discrimination as plain and simple as if someone was to say, “they’re black – so let’s charge them more”.

The Bill will also bring in a much-needed consolidation of the huge number of different laws, rules and regulations – good news again. And of course the passage through Parliament will provide plenty of opportunities to try to make the legislation better!

This article first appeared in last week’s Liberal Democrat News. For subscription details, click here.

Fri 18 July 2008 Comments on this post (2)
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Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill – committee stage

First experience of Committee Stage proceedings at Parliament – this is part of the legislative passage through the Commons of a Bill. Today it is the first session on the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill. Alistair Carmichael – my LibDem colleague – is leading for us in committee and I am his number two. The idea is that I learn the ropes so that when I lead the Violent Crime Reduction Bill through Committee stage in the Autumn I will know what I am doing.

The first thing that strikes me is that I need to be a lawyer. The whole process imitates court proceeding where each line of the proposed Bill is examined – with amendments laid down on virtually every point. Each amendment is then ‘moved’ (introduced verbally) by the person (and therefore party) who has laid down that particular amendment. All sides then argue the case on each point – point by point – and from what I could see – at extreme length.

So far so good!

The Bill is (in my view) a well-meaning attempt by the Government to try and stop people inciting people to hate other people because of their religious beliefs – that is hatred of the believer not the belief.

My experience of religion (as an agnostic) is that quite a lot of religion, although not necessarily practised as preached, is about hating others and condemning those with different beliefs. And therein lies the difficulties in this Bill. Quite what is it that should be protected – and what is it that people shouldn’t be able to do?

Labour say they want to make things equal in terms of the fact that Jews and Sikhs are covered by the existing legislation. But that’s because Jews (and Sikhs) are different to all other religions in that the religion is inseparable from the race. The counter argument is that the law covers all races and for them it covers them if the incitement is racial – but not religious.

Lib Dems have put what is called the ‘Lester Amendment’ which helps the Bill give protection to what we believe the Bill is actually aimed at – Muslims who post 9/11 have suffered abuse and hatred in its wake. The proposition is that they are being attacked as ‘Muslims’ but the hatred is really racially motivated rather than religiously motivated. Therefore the amendment seeks to cover those who use religion as a ‘proxy’ for racial hatred. But it keeps freedom of speech – including the ability to disagree with and criticise people’s religious beliefs.

Ok – I am not going to try and describe the ins and outs of each of the four sessions – but you can see the way this is going.

Tue 28 June 2005 Comments on this post (1)
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Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill

Yesterday there was a press conference at which a cross-party representation of us politicians who are against the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill and a sprinkling of the famous names in like mode were gathered to launch our preferred amendment.

The Bill goes into its second reading today and the argument lies at present in the legislation having unintended consequences. Those unintended consequences being attacks on freedom of speech and the use of the legislation to attack religious opponents.

So, present amongst others were Rowan Atkinson and Ian McEwan. Fine words were spoken. Couldn’t have wished for better exponents of what is called the Lester Amendment. This changes the Bill to ‘incitement to religious hatred as a proxy for racial hatred’.

But today the Bill has its second reading. I am on the front bench as I will be one of two taking this Bill through Committee Stage next week. And just as with Violent Crime Reduction – I need to know all the arguments. So I take notes for hours – and hours.

It is a good debate – but whilst I think Labour know it’s poor legislation and doesn’t deliver the intentions behind it – I think they feel they must drive it through. No doubt they will be looking for a way out of this mess.

I am relieved for one hour to go and have some food – and I go to the Members Dining room. You are only meant to sit on your ‘traditional’ table – i.e. a particular table where members of your party always sit. At ‘our’ table are a group of Lib Dems who I join. Amongst them is John Hemming, one of our new MPs from Birmingham who has so recently received huge amounts of publicity for his private life. He had given a brilliant quote – “all my children are love children” – and handled it pretty well given the circumstances.

Tue 21 June 2005 Comments on this post (0)
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Incitement to religious hatred

10.15 on a Wednesday morning is the Lib Dem Home Affairs Team meeting. We all gather – Mark Oaten (Shadow Home Secretary), Alistair Carmichael (his deputy), me – (police, crime and disorder), the Lords Home Affairs team, staff and – today- Lord Lester as we are discussing the Equality Commission Bill going through the Lords that day.

I am still not one hundred percent convinced that we should have a single Commission that bungs together race, gender and disability into one body – but before we have a Single Equality Act. To me it is cart before horse – and smacks more of the Government’s desire to lessen the ability of the three current Commissions to lobby them successfully.

The other main legislation at the moment is the Incitement to Religious Hatred Bill. The idea is to tackle discrimination against Muslims in particular, but its provisions are likely to cause them more harm than good and stir up a whole raft of other evils. The increasing emphasis on bringing religion in line with race in terms of legislation is dangerous.

When I was Chairing the Stop and Search Implementation Panel of the Met Police Authority (until a few weeks ago) it was beginning to creep into that agenda too. There was a move to suggest that because of the increasing number of stops on Muslims (or more accurately those who looked ‘Muslim’) the police should introduce religious monitoring.

The initial reaction of the Met and the Labour members of the MPA was to jump to and deliver this to rectify the blatant discrimination that was being perpetrated against Muslims. But I fought it (amongst others) as the wrong solution to the problem – and moreover a political solution prior to the General Election.

I had the Home Office in to give some of their evidence on the research they had been doing into this area. It was very interesting – as Muslims in the North of England were dead against it – as opposed to Muslims in London. Many of the religious groups were dead against it – unsurprisingly. Jews and Sikhs who have both been persecuted through the ages for their religious beliefs made it quite clear that they did not wish to have to reveal their religion to anyone.

Anyway – the point I am making is that these are tinderbox times – and all of us in the political maelstrom had better be careful that we do not create a monster that destroys us. I know – dramatic language – but I am extremely concerned about religious freedoms, rights and free speech – which I regard as the tenets of a civilised and peaceful society.

Later at the Parliamentary Party meeting we have the hustings for Chair of the Parliamentary Party. It is the first time this has been contested – as in previous years there has only been one candidate. The result is the challenger (Paul Holmes) wins, defeating the incumbent (Matthew Taylor).

Wed 15 June 2005 Comments on this post (0)
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