Skip to main content

Equality Act 2010

Volume 723: debated on Wednesday 22 December 2010

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in view of the research study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which suggests that caste discrimination and harassment within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010 exists in the United Kingdom, they will bring caste within the list of protected characteristics in that Act.

My Lords, we published the National Institute for Economic and Social Research’s report on caste discrimination and harassment in Great Britain on 16 December. This is an important report that we will consider carefully before responding. We will of course consider our response in the broader context of the equality strategy, Fairness for All. This sets out a new role for government, moving beyond simply introducing more legislation to promoting equality through transparency and behaviour change.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the research shows that discrimination based on caste does occur within the areas covered by the Act, and that it would be reduced if Section 9(5) of the Act was activated? Will she invite members of the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance for a discussion on how best to proceed in eradicating this kind of discrimination?

My Lords, we have not ruled out legislative responses, but this is a different Government from the one who commissioned the research study. Inevitably, we will consider the report in the context of our own equality strategy, including the enhanced public sector equality duty and our commitment to work with businesses to address the main challenges to equality. The report is a valuable guide. We have included all the people who raised the issue of caste, and the report shows where caste problems exist. However, we need to ensure that our response is reasonable and proportionate, bearing in mind that a lot of people will be affected by it if it is brought into legislation.

My Lords, bearing in mind the noble Baroness’s deep understanding and commitment to equality, particularly in this area, will she assure us that when she looks at these issues she will take into account the fact that the whole House supported this aspect of the Equality Bill, including those sitting on her Benches, and will she deploy that delicacy of mind that I know she has in persuading her Government that this is a matter on which they should commit to bring in legislation?

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness for her kind words. I think I understand caste probably better than most people in this House, which is why I say to the noble and learned Baroness and to Members around the House that this is an incredibly complex area. Legislating for it would not deal with the issues behind the continuance of this abhorrent practice. Therefore, I ask noble Lords to look at the report, consider it carefully and then decide whether there is a need to take on board Section 9 of the Act.

As chair of the All-Party Group on Dalits, perhaps I may say how pleased the Dalit communities—that is, the former untouchables—in this country will be that the discrimination that they experienced and reported to the previous Government over many years has now been shown to be a fact by the report of the National Institute for Social and Economic Research. The Minister mentioned education, as indeed does the report. Does she not agree that it would be a vital instrument in achieving education on this sorry situation if there were very firm legislation in place, as there is in India, prohibiting discrimination in the areas of employment, public education and public goods and services?

My Lords, the noble and right reverend Lord raises the question of Dalits and I understand the issue. Even with legislation in place in India, the problem has not been eradicated. It is a question of shifting attitudes within individuals, and I think that the only way of doing that is by ensuring that, if there is discrimination against people on grounds of caste, it is dealt with through the legislation that we have. We need to ensure that the law plays its part in this but, as I said, the report has to be considered fully and I ask the noble and right reverend Lord to give us time to do so.

My Lords, I was one of those who, when the previous Government were in power, argued very strongly for dealing with this ancient source of injustice in India and now here. Does the Minister agree with my noble friend Lord Avebury that the report shows that there is unfair discrimination based on caste, or the absence of it? Will she agree, as did the previous Government, to meet the Dalit community’s organisations so that they can hear first-hand, as did the previous Government, about the injustices that the present situation is causing?

My noble friend will be aware that during the passage of the Equality Bill there were consultations and meetings with people right across the caste system to ensure that both sides of the argument were put. I urge all noble Lords to allow the Government to consider the report carefully. I think that there will be a fair outcome if we see how it impacts on the wider context of legislation in our country.

My Lords, is it not fundamental to this whole question that we have proper education in schools from the very earliest age?

My noble friend is right about education, but I think that education needs to start within the communities in which such discrimination is practised. I understand completely how difficult it is for some communities to raise the question but, unless they deal with it themselves, legislation will not do so.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that it is very worrying to see in the report that caste is seen as providing identity and support and reinforcing community? Does she agree that integration, education and legislation are what are needed and that we do not need to support community cohesion by supporting discrimination?

My noble friend is absolutely right. As one who has always supported equality through integration, I think we need to come away from the idea that constantly supporting people to be separate is an easier form of dealing with the problem now. The big picture should be that we can get on with our lives and treat people without having to worry that we will offend them in some way because of one issue or another. The law will not cover every possibility of discrimination, even if we are constantly legislating to bring in more and more groups to protect.