Lords vote to end caste discrimination

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill 2012-13, currently passing through the Lords, is

“[a] Bill to make provision about the UK Green Investment Bank; to make provision about employment law; to establish and make provision about the Competition and Markets Authority and to abolish the Competition Commission and the Office of Fair Trading; to amend the Competition Act 1998 and the Enterprise Act 2002; to make provision for the reduction of legislative burdens; to make provision about copyright and rights in performances; to make provision about payments to company directors; and for connected purposes”.

However, in addition to sunset and review provisions, heritage planning, the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Act 2008, and aspects of Health and Safety liability, Part 5  – Reduction of Legislative Burdens  includes three clauses relating to the Equality Acts.

The Bill is now at its Report Stage in the House of Lords, and on 4 March 2013 significant amendments were supported strongly in relation to clause 57: the insertion of “caste” as a further sub paragraph (d), after section 9(1)(c) of the Equality Act 2010, thereby making it a protected characteristic under the “race” criterion; and on the rejection of the government’s planned repeal of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s “general duty” under section 3 of the Equality Act 2006 to promote equal opportunities and prevent unfair discrimination.

With regard to caste, the Government Equality Office Research Findings, 2010/8 on Caste Discrimination and Harassment in Great Britain concluded that the Government might tackle caste discrimination and harassment through:

  • extending anti-discrimination legislation to cover caste (i.e. using the power in the Equality Act 2010 to make caste an aspect of race);
  • educative routes; and
  • It might also extend the criminal law to address caste-motivated harassment and violence.”

In Monday’s debate, the Government’s equalities spokesperson, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, defended its decision not to legislate, stating

“[w]e are not closing the door to legislation. From the limited evidence of caste prejudice already available we believe that there is much to be gained through a programme of education,”

adding that the Equality and Human Rights Commission was going to look into the issue and report later in the year.  However, the Government was heavily defeated and Lord Harries’ amendment was carried: 256 Contents to 153 Not-Contents.

This followed the earlier Government defeat, on Baroness Campbell of Surbiton’s amendment to reject the repeal of the ECHR’s “general duty”.  The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Viscount Younger of Leckie, offered no new arguments in defence of the Government’s position and declined the opportunity to take up proposals to come back with alternatives at a later stage.  Baroness Campbell did not accept the Government’s case and forced the issue to a vote, and her amendment was passed by 217 to 166.

There is the possibility that both of these amendments could be overturned when the Bill returns to the Commons. However, allegations of caste discrimination are by no means always unfounded. Readers may recall that in the round-up for 17th February we flagged up a report in The Guardian that an employment tribunal hearing the first-ever unfair dismissal claim on grounds of caste discrimination had collapsed after the judge had recused herself from the case.