MPs battle with peers over future of equality watchdog


theweek120by150The government is engaged in a battle with the House of Lords over the remit of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), after MPs overturned a major parliamentary victory that had been secured by a disabled peer.

The government wants to remove section three of the Equality Act 2006 – the EHRC’s “general duty” – as part of plans to simplify regulation and reduce “unnecessary red tape” through its enterprise and regulatory reform bill.

The general duty describes how the commission should encourage a society where there is respect for human rights, mutual respect between groups, and every individual has an equal opportunity to participate.

Last month, Baroness [Jane] Campbell secured the most notable success of her parliamentary career when her amendment saving the general duty saw the government defeated in the Lords by more than 50 votes.

She had told fellow peers that section three sets out the principles and values that define the commission and was of “enormous significance in terms of culture change in this country”. She was backed by many other leading human rights experts in the Lords.

But when the bill returned to the Commons this week to allow MPs to debate this and other changes made by peers, the government succeeded in overturning Baroness Campbell’s amendment.

Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat women and equalities minister, said that any successful organisation must have “clarity of purpose”, and the general duty was more of a “vague and aspirational statement”.

She added: “The change will not hinder the EHRC’s ability to fulfil its important duties and responsibilities.”

But Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said the general duty was “fundamental to how the EHRC operates” and sets out its “guiding principles and values”.

She praised Baroness Campbell’s “long record of working on human rights and equality issues”, and added: “She knows what she is talking about, and her charge to the government was that they have yet to prove that a commission with fewer powers and tools at its disposal will be more effective than one with the role and powers bestowed on it by Parliament some six years ago.”

Chuka Umunna, Labour’s shadow business secretary, said his party opposed the government’s attempts to scrap the general duty.

He said: “As Baroness Campbell, who sponsored the amendment in the Lords, said, the duty imports the cultural and ethical principles of equality and human rights into the commission’s remit.

“It makes it clear that the commission is there not just to enforce rules but to change culture.”

Last month, Baroness O’Neill, the EHRC’s new chair, told peers the commission believed that – “on balance” – removing section three was “unlikely to have a significant adverse impact on its work”.

But Umunna told MPs the commission now believed the general duty should be retained.

The House of Lords is due to discuss the amendment again on Monday (22 April).

17 April 2013