Current Affairs

Politicians and gay groups raise concerns over the Equality Bill

Jessica Geen July 15, 2009
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Last week, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell launched an attack on the Equality Bill, saying it was “discriminatory” and that LGBT people were “explicitly excluded” from some protections, such as parts on harassment.

The Bill, which is currently in the reading stage, has been hailed by the government as the final piece of equality legislation necessary. It is designed to define and simplify existing laws.

Following Tatchell’s criticism, asked other key groups and politicians what they thought of the Bill.

Theresa May, the shadow women and equalities minister, said that Conservative party supported much of the Bill but was concerned about some of the more “bureaucratic” measures. She added that changing attitudes was the only way to make life fairer.

May said: “We believe that too many British people face discrimination because of their race, gender, sexuality, religion, age or background, and we want action to bring that to an end. So we support many of the ideas contained in the Equality Bill and we welcome the fact that sexual orientation will be recognised as a protected characteristic under the proposed new public sector equality duty.

“But there are some areas where we have reservations and are pressing the government for greater clarification. There are too many measures which are bureaucratic, costly and it is unclear what benefits they will bring.

“We also believe that just legislating against inequality is not going to bring any real change – it is addressing the root causes of inequality and changing people’s attitudes that will really make life fairer for everyone.”

A spokesman for Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrats’ equality spokesperson, said the party had focused on harassment and sexual orientation as particular concerns.

He said: “We have tried to amend the issue of sexual orientation being excluded from protection from harassment in schools and goods and services.

“The government have said that this Bill is to clarify and simplify laws. But you could say people are already protected from age discrimination but this is in the Equality Bill, unlike the provisions for sexual orientation harassment.

“There shouldn’t be a disparity, it should be explicit on the page.”

He added: “Lynne Featherstone also believes the definition for trans people is too narrow. However, we have tabled an amendment to widen it to people in terms of their gender identity, rather than just people who are planning or have had medical gender reassignment.”

Gay education charities have already been outspoken on the issue of an exemption for faith schools on sex education, saying it will only increase homophobic bullying.

However, Tony Fenwick of Schools Out summarised the group’s other concerns.

He said: “The grey areas are protection for trans people, whether the public sector duty covers schools and the exclusion of sexual orientation (and faith and belief) from harassment legislation.

“We are assured by the Equalities Office that trans people will be protected in the gender to which they identify on a permanent basis and that this is not dependent on whether they have had or are having gender reassignment surgery. We were panicked when we saw the June response to the Bill from the EHRC [Equality and Human Rights Commission], in which it stated that the public sector equality duty did not apply to schools. We have been assured by the Equalities office that schools will indeed be bound by the duty.”

He continued: “Current harassment legislation is rather more complicated. There are no laws in place to protect people under the provision of goods and services (and this includes schools). To create laws would take time and there is little left. The Government Equalities Office and the EHRC are convinced that harassment in such cases is already covered by other legislation. Furthermore, they have demonstrated that no one has come up with a realistic hypothesis of someone being harassed in these circumstances and it being legally permissible. Critics argue that this still means that sexual orientation, like faith and belief, are not subject to the same laws and that discrimination is therefore taking place.

“We take the pragmatic view. If school communities are protected under present legislation that’s good enough for us. The key issue is to get this Bill out into the open and onto the statute before the next election. If we don’t, than all that consultation and all that hard work will have turned to dust. Those of us who have fought long and hard to make the Equality Act a reality will find it devastating if it’s timed out by unnecessary arguments at this late stage.

“If a case comes up subsequently whereby someone is harassed because of sexual orientation and s/he is not protected by the law, then the law can be developed at a later date. But any delays at this stage will scupper the Act and we cannot allow that to happen.”

The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association has also cited harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation as a concern.

GALHA secretary David Christmas said: “We are very concerned at the failure of the Equality Bill to outlaw harassment on grounds of sexual orientation. The government says that it is not necessary as discrimination is already outlawed but no one has explained why it is not necessary for sexual orientation but is necessary for race, disability, gender and other strands, which are all protected from harassment as well as discrimination. What’s different about sexual orientation that it needs less protection?”

Christmas also cited the issue of religion and belief, saying: “We are also concerned at the fact that religious organisations are allowed to discriminate against gay people in employment and against people on grounds of religion or belief in employment and the provision of services even when providing public services under contract. This violates the rights of non-religious people and people of other religions as well as having the potential to act as a cloak for homophobia even where sexual orientation discrimination is ostensibly prohibited.”

Tatchell strongly criticised gay rights organisation Stonewall for supporting the Bill, saying it was “ignoring the unequal treatment of LGBT people.”

However, Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill said: “No one should suffer harassment because of their sexual orientation. It’s a real problem and one that demands legal remedy. And we believe that the existing laws provide that.

“If any gaps in the protection of lesbian and gay people remained in the Bill, we would be pressing the government to fill them.”

In response to the criticisms, a Government Equalities Office spokesman said: “The Equality Bill will provide protection for LGB pupils, by continuing the existing ban on discrimination. For example, a school will not be able to prevent a gay pupil from becoming a prefect because of his sexual orientation.”

He added: “The consultation on the Equality Bill concluded that there was no need for protection from harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation outside the workplace because there was no evidence of such harassment taking place which would not fall within the protection from direct discrimination.

“The Equality Bill will continue the existing ban on discriminating against someone because of their sexual orientation in providing goods, facilities or services or premises. For example, a publican will not be able to refuse to serve a man because he is gay.

“The Equality Bill consultation concluded that there was no need for protection from harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods, facilities or services or the management and disposal of premises because there was no evidence of such harassment taking place which would not fall within the protection from direct discrimination. “

On the issue of protection for trans people, the spokesman said: “The Equality Bill will provide protection for transsexual people who are proposing to undergo, are undergoing or have undergone gender reassignment. It will also protect those who are discriminated against because they are thought of by others as being transsexual.

“[It] will provide protection for pupils who are seriously considering the possibility of gender reassignment. It will also protect pupils who are thought of by others as being transsexual.”

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