A disabled peer has warned that government plans to scrap a vital piece of legislation would leave the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) less able to uncover scandalous violations of rights and equality.
The coalition wants to use its enterprise and regulatory reform bill to remove “section three” of the Equality Act 2006, as part of plans to simplify regulation and reduce “unnecessary red tape”.
Section three is the commission’s “general duty”, describing how the watchdog should encourage and support a society where there is respect for human rights and the dignity and worth of every individual, mutual respect between groups, and where “each individual has an equal opportunity to participate”.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell, one of the EHRC’s founding commissioners, told fellow peers during the committee stage of the bill this week that scrapping section three – in addition to other government reforms – would turn the EHRC into a mere “enforcement factory”.
Proposing an amendment that would keep section three in the Equality Act 2006, Baroness Campbell said removing the general duty suggested the government believed the commission should not “draw our attention to rights, risks, violations, discrimination or inequality, or propose to us how these might be remedied”.
She said: “Uncovering scandals in society that we would not otherwise know about and need to put right is the hallmark of a modern commission.”
Her fellow disabled peer, Lord [Colin] Low, said the removal of section three was part of a “sustained attack on the equality agenda in our society and the institutions which exist to promote it”, and that the government had decided to “throw the dismantling of the EHRC as a bone to their right wing”.
He said section three was “a road map” used by the courts to interpret the Equality Act, and that removing it would “undermine the historic unification of equality and human rights law”, weaken the commission’s vital “A” status as a national human rights institution, and make its actions “more liable to judicial review”.
Lord Low said the coalition had already removed the commission’s ability to award grants, its helpline and its conciliation service, and slashed its budget, while the bill proposed to remove its duty to promote good relations between different groups.
Among a string of other peers who spoke in favour of Baroness Campbell’s amendment, the Labour peer Lord [Bill] Morris said repealing section three was “equivalent to the referee blowing the final whistle before the match has ended” because “we have not abolished discrimination on grounds of race, gender, disability or otherwise”.
But Lord Lester, the Liberal Democrat peer, argued that section three was “unenforceable and purely aspirational”, and removing it would have no impact on “all the commission’s powers and statutory functions”.
And Baroness Stowell, the Conservative women and equalities spokeswoman, insisted that the commission would “still be an agent for promoting change”.
She said the commission “should not be an impassioned lobbyist leading emotive campaigns”, but instead its role should be as “an expert witness, to make recommendations on the basis of the facts”, and to “raise awareness of people’s rights under equality and human rights law and to ensure that the law is working as Parliament intended”.
She said that repealing section three would “neither stop nor impair the commission’s ability to fulfil its important equality and human rights functions”, and that the duty was simply “a political statement with no clear legal effect”.
She added: “We are seeking to repeal the general duty on the commission because it creates unrealistic expectations, positive and negative, about what it on its own can achieve.”
Baroness Campbell withdrew her amendment, but suggested she would reintroduce it at the report stage of the bill, if the government failed to amend its proposals.