Lord Lester: The Government has failed on equality

From the human rights lawyer's Stonewall lecture on Labour's equality record
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"We will seek to end unjustifiable discrimination wherever it exists." That was New Labour's promise in its 1997 manifesto. More than six years later, Tony Blair's Government has not kept its promise. The Government's commitment to equality is as weak as is its respect for civil liberty.

So, far from ending unjustifiable discrimination "wherever it exists", what the Government has done denies equal protection under law to victims, making the present legal regime still more complex, incoherent and ineffective.

The legislation is botched, and the results please no one except ministers and their business managers. Apart from the Race Relations Act 2000, the Government's Equality Agenda has so far consisted of little more than reacting to EU directives and implementing them restrictively.

Britain's equality code is a tangled thicket of inconsistent and incomplete legislation in urgent need of coherent reform. Its complexity makes it especially difficult for small businesses to comply with their legal obligations, and hinders victims in their access to justice. Even the basic concepts of discrimination differ, without rhyme or reason, in the hotchpotch of different statutes. The equality agencies that were created to tackle entrenched discriminatory practices by means of strategic law enforce-ment have never treated that as their main priority.

The Government does not recognise the pressing need for a coherent user-friendly framework covering all the main types of unjustifiable discrimination, on grounds of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, religious belief (or lack of it), and age, not only in employment, but in education, housing, goods and services.

The Government does not recognise that, instead of relying upon a negative duty not to discriminate, a new Equality Act needs to place positive equality duties on public bodies and to require large employers to introduce equity plans.

The Government does not recognise the need to create an Equality Commission with the resources and professional expertise to act as a one-stop shop tackling the different strands of discrimination, carrying out strategic law enforcement and monitoring compliance with equality duties, without imposing costly and excessive bureaucratic burdens.