Reasons to be cheerful, part one

When I heard Derry Irvine had been found guilty of discrimination, I felt an indecent sense of pleasure
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE to confess (and bang go the gongs, I expect) that when I heard that our Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, had been found guilty of sex discrimination, I felt an indecent sense of satisfaction. As did the gang of my female friends I met in Sloane Square on the day of the verdict. On the way home we chanted:

Derry Derry quite contrary

How does your power grow?

With nods and winks behind that

chintz

And friendly males all in the know

We were lucky not to be arrested for being so outrageous. But we thought there were good reasons to be cheerful. The case was seriously under- reported, but could be a crucial staging-post in our never-ending fight for fairness.

One of the most powerful men in the kingdom was forced to explain his decisions by two ordinary women lawyers, both of whom work in the thankless, twilight arm of the profession. Jane Coker, an immigration lawyer, and Martha Osamor, a legal adviser, claimed they had been discriminated against by Lord Irvine, who appointed a special adviser at a salary of pounds 73,000 without considering other candidates.

The adviser, Garry Hart, is not only the Lord Chancellor's close friend but is also godfather to Tony Blair's daughter. The tribunal accepted that Jane Coker was indirectly discriminated against because Lord Irvine did not look beyond his close network of mostly white, male acquaintances. Research carried out by the two women complainants indicated that the Lord Chancellor had little professional contact with women and even less so with black people. He had gone to an all-male Cambridge college and was a member of the all-male Garrick Club and his chambers were packed out with white men.

The defence claimed that, in fact, the Lord Chancellor had been known to appoint women, his personal secretary for example. Lord Irvine said the women were "mischievous", and refused to appear at the tribunal. The tribunal was told that special advisers had to be the chosen ones whom ministers and others could "totally trust". This would be a farce if the implications were not monumental.

We do not accept that jobs in the public services should be given to members of the family because we can "totally trust" them. That would be nepotism and corruption. Other problems arise when friends are placed in key jobs. There simply cannot be the distance and objectivity necessary to provide critical assessments. Of course, true friends will point out stupidities too, but not too often. They are there to tolerate bad habits and characteristics, to be non-judgemental, to approve of what we are and what we choose to do. What if Mr Hart felt that there was something terribly wrong going on in the Lord Chancellor's Department? Would it be easier or harder for him to blow the whistle? A special adviser's job is an essential one.

To lock out of the selection process all those who might have excellent qualifications, just because they might not bond with the minister, is infantile. I said this once to the desperately trivial Derek Draper, and he understood neither my reasoning nor the principles.

Which brings me to another issue. Appointing pals increases the risk of cloning. You end up with too many devoted Dereks with a limited view of life. The dangers of exclusion are far greater in Britain than in America. Here class, race and gender inequality in the upper echelons of our society remain a scandal. There, Bill Clinton not only has a number of close black friends and acquaintances (Toni Morrison has called him the first black president of the US) but also has an army of feminists by his side. Most of our ministers - except those who have a large number of black and Asian constituents - move exclusively in white and often male circles.

Remember, this is our money. Special advisers to government ministers are paid by the state and not the party. All but one of the 69 advisers working at the moment are white. Most of them are male.

Government department recruitment procedures are constantly under scrutiny to make sure they are fair. Private sector companies don't hand over all their top jobs to the friends of those already there. So why should government ministers assume that they are absolutely right to do just that?

Instead of launching an appeal, as he is threatening to do, Lord Irvine should use this moment to think long and hard about this case. Does he wish to be remembered as a man who has put the European Convention of Human Rights on our soil, or as someone who defends the right to deny equal treatment to women and blacks?

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