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”.
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.
Baroness [Jane] Campbell told fellow peers this week 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”.
The disabled crossbench peer’s plea to keep section three was backed by many other leading human rights experts in the Lords, during the report stage of the enterprise and regulatory reform bill.
She told peers that section three was of “critical importance” and brought the “cultural and ethical principles of equality and human rights” into the commission’s remit, and “reinforces the notion that its role is more than promoting and enforcing the law”.
She said: “That is essential if it is to help bring about a society in which prejudice and discrimination are eliminated, human rights routinely respected and everyone can achieve their full potential.”
She said that removing section three risked “creating a body increasingly reliant on costly and intrusive legal action to have any meaningful impact”, while that and other equality reforms risked seeing the country “slipping back to the time before the Stephen Lawrence inquiry”.
The Labour peer Lord [Bill] Morris, the former trade union leader and Commission for Racial Equality commissioner, said that section three “represents a commitment to the principles of equality – equality of opportunity, equality of dignity and the responsibility of the state to its citizens”.
He added: “The EHRC needs a benchmark, a flag, by which it can promote the principles on which it was founded.
“It needs to be measured, not against the principles of race, disability or gender, but in a much wider context, because it makes a statement about the sort of society we are, the aspirations that we hold for ourselves, and the signals that we send far and wide.”
Baroness O’Loan, the crossbench peer who chaired the EHRC’s own human rights inquiry five years ago, said that section three provided “the vision that is necessary to guide the operation of equality and human rights law in this country”.
But Baroness O’Neill, the EHRC’s new chair, said the commission believed that “on balance” removing section three was “unlikely to have a significant adverse impact on its work”.
She said this was because other sections of the Equality Act “still preserve the wider duties” of the commission, but also because “the very task of an equality and human rights body is, by its nature, aspirational”.
Baroness Stowell, the Conservative equalities spokeswoman, said: “Having such a wide-ranging and unrealistic general duty would make it harder than it should be for the commission to prioritise its work.”
She added: “The repeal of the general duty will neither stop nor hinder the commission’s ability to fulfil its important equality and human rights duties.
“I believe that by providing the clarity which will come through removing the general duty we will help it become more effective.”
A vote on Baroness Campbell’s amendment saw the government defeated, with 217 peers voting in favour – including a number of Liberal Democrats – and 166 against.
The government could still attempt to overturn the amendment as the bill completes its passage through parliament.
5 March 2013