Tory backbench MPs lined up earlier today to attack Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill. We post two of their contributions below – alongside more qualified concerns from Theresa May, Ms Harman’s opposite number.
The Bill does a number of things that many Conservatives will support. This includes action against discrimination by age. Such discrimination is clearly wrong when it means an NHS patient gets inferior treatment because of their age but the legislation must be sensible. Can it be wrong, for example, to allow a travel insurer to discriminate against a very old, frail passenger?
What really worries Conservative backbenchers – reportedly dismissed by John Bercow MP as the "Taliban" tendency* – are the provisions which will allow firms to discriminate in favour of people on the grounds of their gender or ethnicity. Over at CentreRight Andrew Lilico argues that this right to discriminate will mutate into a de facto requirement to discriminate as firms who prefer the old-fashioned approach of appointing purely on merit are probed for "imbalances". Harriet Harman made it clear today that the Government is ready to use public procurement policies to force private firms to be more open about their employment policies.
The Labour benches lapped up Ms Harman’s announcement earlier today and her strategy makes sense from her party’s narrow interest in shoring up support amongst its base supporters. We might see a lot of legislation like this coming forward from ministers who recognise that the electoral game is probably up for them but that two years is a long time in government and they might as well use that time to legislate.
Theresa May MP: "Until now, the Government have rightly sought to stamp out discrimination. The Bill takes a different approach. It will include measures to prevent discrimination, and measures to allow discrimination in certain circumstances. It introduces further complexity and confuses the Government’s message. After all these years, this is a huge missed opportunity. The Government could have introduced a revolutionary approach to equalities legislation, promoting fairness and diversity within a positive and sensible framework. Instead, the right hon. and learned Lady has been quoted as using phrases such as “empowering the resentful”. The Bill should seek to unite, not to divide. It has good intentions, but its lack of detail and clarity is disappointing. I am willing to work with the Government on this matter, because the issue of equalities is one that deserves to be looked at above and beyond the emotions of party politics. I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will join me in endeavouring to ensure that we can do just that."
Philip Davies MP: "This Bill has nothing to do with equality. It is the most politically
correct Bill ever, proposed by the most politically correct Minister
that this country has ever seen. If she were so bothered about
equality, she should have enshrined in law the fact that people should
be given a job and candidates selected on merit—irrespective of their
gender and irrespective of their racial background. How on earth can
she justify in an equalities Bill a provision that allows people to be
selected solely on the basis of their skin colour or their gender? That
is completely and utterly outrageous. The party that, as the hon.
Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, introduced
anti-discrimination laws is now reintroducing discrimination into the
workplace. How many of the Minister’s hand-wringing white male
colleagues have offered to give up their seats in the House to make way
for more women and more ethnic minority MPs?"
Ann Winterton MP: "Is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that, despite what she said, what she proposes will be an extremely harsh burden on smaller businesses because of the extra amount of red tape and bureaucracy with which they already have to deal? The Bill will be a further blow. I come from a small business background, so I know that better than some on the Government Benches who have never had any experience of running a small business. May I say that I am completely at odds with my own party because I have never believed in positive discrimination, but it will reassure the right hon. and learned Lady to know that her plans for older workers will perhaps protect me from any retaliatory action?"
* We might send Mr Bercow a copy of The Kite Runner and he will perhaps realise how offensive the term Taliban is.