Archive

Equalities

The decision of the Church of England to reject to entry of Women bishops has predictably prompted calls for government intervention. Quite rightly there is aversion to interfering with the internal theological disputes of a religion but the constitutional reality of the established church in England simply does not allow for ‘a live and let live’ policy.

The suggestion of Chris Bryant, the shadow Borders and Immigration minister and a former Church of England Priest that the government should bring in a moratorium on the appointment of male bishops is not as perverse as it may first appear. With 26 Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords this is not just an issue that can be left to the church legislature itself for its decision has a direct effect on the composition of the upper chamber which is an arm of the State.

Although it is true, for good reason, that the Equality Act provides certain exemptions for religious organisations but the same does not apply to the government. In not directly interfering in a system that prohibits those voting on UK legislation being a certain sex and further skewing the disproportionate preponderance of males in the upper house it is nigh impossible to see how this is not indirectly discriminatory and inconsistent with its public sector equality duty. And that this is allowed to happen means this is not just an issue for the Church of England but for each and every citizen as our laws and the conduct of government is being scrutinised by a legislature formed by discriminatory practices.

Personally, I think the most prudent way out of this mess is the disestablishment of the Church of England but whatever the way out if the House of Lords is to remain give at least a pretence of being a democratic and inclusive chamber the government must act to end the discrimination in so far as it impacts on the public conduct of the Lords Spiritual.

There once was a time when David Cameron made a big deal about being ‘a new kind of Conservative’. Cameron wooed the media in a campaign to once and for all dispel the image that the Conservatives were, to quote Theresa May, “the nasty party”. I am ashamed to say I was one of those who were hoodwinked into thinking that he was a relative progressive on social matters. There can be no doubt however that the facade has now well and truly fallen from public view.

Cameron has today taken the opportunity to declare to the British press that his government has given up any pretence to caring that his savage and unnecessary cuts disproportionately impact on the disabled, on BME citizens, on the very young and very old. This of course does not matter, Cameron knows he has forever lost any chance that these groups will ever be gullible enough to belief the ‘compassionate conservatism’ nonsense for a second time.

Naturally, Cameron did not actually say that in his speech to the CBI today he used the usual Conservative code words:

  • ‘reduce regulatory burdens on business’ = let employers flout the law of the land with impunity without any comeback
  • ‘reduce bureaucracy’ = only listen to views you know you will agree with

Although the ‘decision’ to axe equality impact assessments (EIA) has been given extensive coverage this is really a non-story. EIAs are not compulsory even now in England, they are merely viewed by the EHRC (an organisation the government are systemically eviscerating) as the best means when properly conducted of ensuring policies are not indirectly discriminatory and, therefore, problems before they cost public authorities bucket-loads of cash in compensation payouts.

The Coalition government (especially gallingly in the case of Lib Dems who did a lot in opposition to push an equalities agenda) have pursued a constant course of watering down regulations intended to limit discrimination of protected groups. Hauntingly commenting on the most recent ‘specified duties’ regulations John Wadham et al speculate that

There is little to prevent public bodies, particularly at a time of recession, from abandoning any commitment to consult with, and consider the equality impact of their decisions on the communities they serve. The government’s suggestion that this step was intended to ‘make public bodies truly transparent and accountable to the public for their performance on equality is therefore risible.

John Wadham et al, Blackstone’s Guide to the Equality Act 2010, (2012), 159.

With today’s speech the “little” that was left to encourage conscientious and socially responsible policy making has probably evaporated. Unless Cameron intends to repeal the Equality Act itself, which given the direction of travel I can quite belief would be a desirable outcome for the Conservatives given its tendency to expose the disregard for the most vulnerable at the heart of many government policies, Cameron is unleashing a ticking and very costly time-bomb on public sector finances. The encouragement given to public sector managers to jettison equality from the policy development process (it is already all too often an afterthought delegated to the most junior staff member available) and that is effectively what Cameron has done will result in a great many more legal challenges, and successful ones at that.

Cameron makes reference to the futility of the ‘tick box’ EIA – on this I am in agreement with Cameron. The problem is that what are called EIAs in much of the public sector are simply not worthy of the name and, therefore, there is nowhere near enough actual genuine investigation into how policies can have unforeseen consequences and, when these consequences are raised they are ignored because the CEO, minister or whomever else has already decided on the path to take.

Underlining all this is a risk that we lose all the gains that have been made over the last decade and where the idea of EIAs came from. They are rooted in the McPherson report which followed the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the bungled police investigation. A large reason why some of the killers of this 19 year old man still walk free is because of the ‘institutional racism’ of the Metropolitan Police. Like the “smart people in Whitehall” Cameron praises the Metropolitan Police were not by and large bigoted individuals but they oversaw a department where prejudice was ingrained and therefore not seen and prejudices were not challenged. Leaving the equality agenda to select ‘smart people in Whitehall’ and ministers to consider at their own discretion is nothing less than a recipe for this present government to oversee the same mistakes their Tory forebears oversaw some twenty years ago.