Christian Concern is unhappy about the appointment of David Isaac, formerly the Chair of Stonewall, as the new Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. At one level, its complaint is about Isaac himself. At another, it is about the way in which the Commission itself works and the legislation which it champions is framed.
Christian Concern says that Isaac’s record suggests that he will privilege one strand of the Commission’s work, namely its duty to treat sexual orientation as a protected characteristic, above another, its duty to treat religion as a protected characteristic. It claims that Nicky Morgan has not only conceded this point in her explanation for appointing him, but has made it a central part of her reasoning for so doing. “Under [his] chairmanship,” she wrote, “the charity successfully lobbied to secure major legislative change, including the abolition of Section 28, the introduction of civil partnerships and gay marriage. He was personally involved in the development of Stonewall’s strategy, lobbying parliamentarians and other opinion formers.”
But Christian Concern’s complaint turns out to be not so much about Isaac as the equalities legislation itself. In a nutshell, this “outlines the rights of protected groups but does not address the question of how competing interests are to be ‘balanced’ when conflicts arise”. The Commission and others have therefore, it claims, placed the sexual orientation strand higher up the rights queue than the religion strand”, thereby creating “a hierarchy of rights” that Parliament did not intend when passing the equalities legislation.
Some will agree with Christian Concern about Isaac’s appointment and the Commission’s workings and some will not. But either way, it is right on one point as a simple matter of fact: the equalities legislation avoids spelling out what is to happen if one strand clashes with another, and the courts are being left to pick up the pieces. If voters want the sexual orientation strand to have priority over the religion strand – or vice-versa for that matter – that is a matter which Parliament should debate and decide. The legislation needs an overhaul.
This in turn raises the question of what form of equalities legislation a Conservative Government believes that Britain should have. The lack of debate about the matter on the centre-right is astonishing, given how central the idea of equality is to political debate in Britain, the importance of the issues involved, and how deeply it affects the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party. We all support equality before the law, or should. But thereafter, the concept becomes more slippery, since one version of it can clash with another.
For example, equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are incompatible, for obvious reasons. The centre-right has usually championed the former and always opposed the latter – which is scarcely suprising, since the latter would be socialism, more or less – though I believe that Tories should oppose inequalities of outcome when they are unjustly achieved. This is the point that Michael Gove was making in his attack on “the undeserving rich”…those who sit on each other’s remuneration committees and who rig the rules of the free market in their favour”.
There is also “equality of respect”. But whatever your view, there is a big political point here. Discussion about equality of opportunity has a way of being elided into one about equality of outcome – an ambiguity that New Labour rode when it set the tone for much of what has happened. At a time when the mass middle class in the west faces a threat to its living standards, this is perilous for the Conservative Party – especially when it is perceived by many voters as being dominated not only by people who went to private schools in general but to one in particular, namely Eton.
At any rate, the centre-right needs, for reasons both of principle and practice, to revisit the discussion on equality and strip it back to its essentials. Essentially, the debate about equality is, or should be, one about justice. One should not be denied access to housing or work, for example, if one is a member of an ethnic group or gay or Muslim, and so on. So promoting equality can be another way of promoting opportunity – a concept that is probably less contested (though far from easy to realise) and certainly less problematic for the centre-right, where it is also present in its latest form, “aspiration”. Were the equalities legislation to be revisisted by Parliament, as it should be, it would follow that the Equality and Human Rights Commission should be, too.
What people need is less a quango filling gaps that Parliament has left it, focused largely on “the mandate to challenge discrimination and to protect and promote human rights”, than one with clearer instructions from Parliament and a mission to champion opportunity – or, as it is sometimes called, social mobility (though see Peter Franklin’s reservations about the concept).
If instead a Conservative Government leaves the courts and a commission to mediate legislation about equalities, Tory MPs and others cannot complain if the consequence is an Equalities Blob, with Ministers making appointments that they know will please it. Morgan has had a change of heart on same-sex marriage. But note in passing that, under current conditions, it would be impossible for her to do her job as Equalities Minister had she not.