Oh St-Ruth!

“Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich were shaking hands congratulating themselves on the introduction of an anti-gay bill in Congress. If it passes, they won’t be able to shake hands, because it will then be illegal for a prick to touch an asshole.”

Judy Carter – American Actress/Comedian

Is it just me or is this whole thing about Ruth Kelly little more than an acid-flashback to 1998, when much the same kind of debate on the personal religious beliefs of a senior politician sparked up in relation to Anne Widdecombe’s appointment as Shadow Health Secretary.

Back then the point that was hotly debated for all of fifteen minutes was whether Widdecombe’s views on abortion were compatible with her position, now its Ruth Kelly in the firing line and facing markedly similar questions in regards to her presumed responsibility for government policy on equality – the presumption being, of course, that she actually has any say in such matters over and above carrying out the edicts of her boss and his coterie of policy advisers.

In both cases the only reasonable line to take, to borrow heavily on the Scottish legal system for a moment – is ‘case not proven’. As with Widdecombe before here, Kelly’s personal beliefs in relation to whether homosexuality is ‘sinful’ are of no particular relevance unless it become apparent that her beliefs, assuming she takes the orthodox Catholic view on such matters, can be seen to intrude into her actual work – and in any case it’s already well established that most the more egregious examples of blatant pandering to god-botherers over recent years have originated in the form of edicts from ‘on high’. No, not the Pope – Tony.

I’m no big fan of Kelly’s by any stretch of the imagination but on this occasion it is only right that she be given the benefit of the doubt and be allowed to get on with the job until such time as its established that her personal beliefs do cause a problem – for the time being, so long as she steers clear of greeting Peter Tatchell with a cheery grin and a cry of ‘Wotcha, shirt-lifter!’ then this is really a non-issue.

Looking at what discussion there is around this issue, the prevailing view seems to run somewhere from considered opinions such as this one from ‘The Wonderful World of Lola’ to ‘who gives a toss anyway’, a position helped along nicely by the fact that it took a total muppet (Nicky Campbell) to raise the issue in the first place. In fact the only point that Lola raises in her piece that I’d disagree with is her contention in relation to anti-Catholic prejudice – for the most part I really don’t think that the majority of people give too much of a toss about Catholicism these days outside of the usual sectarian hot-spots. The whole Opus Dei thing is probably a little more significant but only is so far as it has the reputation of being a ‘secret society’ attached to it, which inevitably will start some down the road that leads to tinfoil helmet-dom with or without any influence from the vastly over-hyped ‘Da Vinci Code’.

If there is any cause for [mild] concern in Kelly taking on responsibility for equality then it has more to do with turf war that’s been going on since it was announced that the big three equality bodies, the CRE, EOC and Disability Rights Commission, would be merged into the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights and where Kelly will need to exercise some degree of caution in order to avoid current assumptions about her personal and religious beliefs becoming ammunition for those currently fighting over the size of their share of the resources allocated to this new body and the status accorded to their specialist interests.

The new Commission is undoubtedly a step in the right direction albeit an imperfect one – and interestingly this is one occasion where there was, and still is, an opportunity for a Labour government to take forward a genuinely radical agenda by adopting a unitary approach to equality issues and replacing the existing portfolio of equality legislation that has developed piecemeal over the last 30-40 years with a Single Equality Act.

Without wishing to sound dismissive of the advances that have been made in this field as a result of current equality legislation, most of which has come from Labour governments, the piecemeal manner in which this has developed has created the unfortunate perception that much of that equality legislation has served not to ensure fair and equitable treatment for all but confer certain rights and advantages on ‘minority communities’ that are not accorded to the wider population. This is far from being true but it is often how this legislation is often perceived, not least because because the language of equality is far too often dominated by talk of right for women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, etc. instead of emphasising that these are right which belong to everyone – the right not to discriminated against in employment on grounds of gender or ethnicity is not the exclusive preserve of women or of ethnic minorities but one accorded to all.

Nevertheless the myth of exclusivity surrounding these rights is all to pervasive and all too easily played upon by the BNP and others on the far-right, despite the fact that there are, today, very few occasions in which particular rights are reserved exclusively to a single group and that where this does arise there is either a perfectly sound and rational reason for it – as with some of the provisions that are specific to people with disabilities, which are entirely justifiable in practical terms – or the product of anomalies arising out of international treaties/law over which the Government has little or no effective control. The prime example of this latter situation is, of course, relates to the allocation of social housing, where Local Authorities are placed under a duty to provide accommodation for refugees/asylum seekers under international law for which there is no longer a parallel duty in relation to British citizens under domestic law, this duty having been abolished by the Thatcher government as part of the programme of deregulating the housing market during the 1980s.

There are, to my mind, two primary and interlinked problems with the current canon of equality law that we, as a party, should seeking to address. The first is that there remain, even with changes brought forward under the same Act that will with create the Commission for Equality and Human Right, too many instances in which rights that should apply ‘globally’ and evenly across all stands of equality legislation remain locked into specific areas, usually either gender and/or ethnicity. For the most this a reflection of the manner in which equality legislation has developed in a rather piecemeal fashion over time, with the legal framework surrounding gender and ethnicity being the most highly developed simply because it has the longest history and the backup of a substantial quantity of case law to support and clarify its provisions, although there are notable instances where this has resulted from little more than pandering to the prejudices of a special interest group – as in the case of provisions dealing with discrimination on ground of sexuality where religious groups were handed a last-minute and, in my view, entirely unjustifiable exemption from certain provisions.

With the final core strand of equality legislation, covering age discrimination, due to come into force from October this year, we have a clear opportunity to take a step back and take stock of where, exactly, we are with this legislation and, in particular, identify where there are clear opportunities to move on from ‘the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of…’ to the generic right not be discriminated against – full stop. This is both a necessary and valuable debate, in addition to being one that would clearly pave the way for the consolidation of existing legislation into a unitary Equality Act. if one looks at the overall framework of equality legislation, as it currently exists, the number of instances in which specific provisions are necessary to cater for the needs of an individual group outside of a broader, generic, framework of rights, is relatively small and centres, in the main, on some the specific provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act, where the cause of discrimination is not elective but the result of external, environmental factors affecting accessibility.

This, in turn, would help to tackle the second problem that arises out of our existing approach to equality legislation, that of perception and the misconception, heavily promulgated by the far-right, that this legislation enacts special rights for particular interest group rather than equal rights for all. In this area, we have everything to gain from moving ahead with a more generic approach that places the emphasis clearly on the universal scope of these rights and very little to lose. Only in certain specific matters would such an approach result in any significant objections – one of more predictable ones being the extension of the scope of the current duty on public authorities duty to promote equality in race relations and, with the passing of the recent Equality Act, gender into a generic duty to promote equality, which would, of course, bring all the usual homophobes out from under their rocks to complain about such a duty extending to matters of sexuality – to which my heartfelt and honest response can only be "fuck ’em "; the moral and ethical imperative of promoting equality is, to my mind, worth infinitely more than any amount of pandering to the supposed prejudices of any mythical deity.

Such a unitary approach can, in my view, only be beneficial, both in rectifying unjustifiable anomalies in existing equality law, and in taking away one of the far-right’s more pernicious strands of argument,  which falsely, claims that the wider ‘indigenous’ population of the UK are being unfairly disabused of their rights in favour of handing rights to minority groups

I realise I’ve rather drifted off the topic of Ruth Kelly’s personal beliefs into a more general view of current equality legislation but with good reason, as one of the more obvious ways in which she could act to quell media speculation about her personal/religious beliefs would be to set out the development of a unitary framework of equality law as clear aspiration for this and future Labour governments, which is only as it should be. Regrettably, I doubt that this will happen, in part because equality, like too many other social justice issues, is perceived to be considerably less of a vote-winner than the more obvious staples of political life; the economy, public services, crime and security but also out of a perhaps understandable desire not to add further fuel to the already overheated turf-war going on in relation to the creation of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

Nevertheless, this is one debate that we could, and should, be having; both within the party and with the wider public. Equally, it is a matter in which considerable initial progress could be made without the requirement for committing substantial resources to the matter but simply by putting forward the general aspiration of moving towards an unitary framework for equality legislation and allowing the debate to develop and, therefore, just the kind of matter on which the Labour Party can quite justifiably and openly consider the potential for future radical reform. In my view this is therefore, exactly the kind of debate that both Ruth Kelly should be keen to pursue in exercising her overall responsiblity for equality – not least as I suspect this to be one area in which, even allowing for current uncertainties, it should be possible to hold a constructive and non-acrimonious debate in which all sectors of the party will find a considerable degree of common ground and purpose.

For once, wouldn’t it be good to debate something that we’re all likely to agree on – at least in principle.

3 thoughts on “Oh St-Ruth!

  1. Have to say I broadly agree with you on the anti-catholic prejudice thing – got a bit carried away this morning! Although I think the hysteria around the Da Vinci Code / Opus Dei stuff is a genuine (albeit small) issue….

  2. “The right not to be discrinated against – full stop.” So how are employers going to choose candidates to fill job places if they aren’t allowed to discriminate on the basis of suitability?

  3. I suppose that’ll teach me to forget that I get lawyers and law students reading my blog – 🙂

    I think its obvious that I’m using the term discriminate – when I can spell it correctly – in its colloquial sense here, rather than applying a strict legal definition of the term.

    That being said, I think my general contention, that a uniform legal framework arrived at by consolidation of existing equality law/regulation into a single Act of Parliament should be the next step forward in terms of equality legislation, not least as two of the primary Acts in this area, SDA 1975 and RRA 1976, have 30 years or so of case law to supplement the existing statutes.

    Despite there being some obvious points of contention that will arise, such a task should not be beyond the wit of the legislature given adequate consultation – in fact one of the more obvious starting points for such an exercise would seem to me to be a comprehensive review by the Law Commission, which should readily address the finer points of law.

    It seems a straightforward enough brief – clarify and simplify – but then I’m firm advocate of the maxim that one should alway attempt to legislate with sufficient clarity to ensure that the public may arrive at an understanding of the law suffucient to enable them to observe it.

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