‘Equality is not a price worth paying’ says* Equality Minister.

Who will protect minority and equality rights in an austere future?

* She didn’t actually.

by Joseph Markus

What’s equality worth?

That’s the question the government has been grappling with. Their answer is stark: at least 50% less than we’re currently paying for it.

In a set of plans, expected to be announced by Lynne Featherstone—Equalities Minister (in name, at least)—both the budget and duties of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will be eviscerated.

The headline figures are the halving of the budget, the slashing of the workforce, a reduction by around 50% of the salary and time commitments of the chief executive. Those alone should be somewhat discomfiting. But the policy shift goes further. Caught up in the changes is the obligation to assess how government policies affect the poor. Apparently castigated when it was first introduced as “socialism in one clause”, this government originally opted not to bring it into force. That duty is now to be repealed.

This move completes this government’s ideological drive to remove from the statute books any reference to the unsavoury socio-economic context that forms the backdrop to the majority of the different forms of disadvantage.

What we will be left with is an equality body unable to properly fulfil its functions of assessment and enforcement and a body that is unable to fully describe—and react to—the nature of inequality in this country.

Lynne Featherstone, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Equalities

One potentially significant factor in the decision is that the EHRC can, at times, represent a particularly sharp thorn in the side of incumbent governments. The body recently strongly criticised the government in a ‘Section 31 Assessment’ of HM Treasury. In assessing the extent to which the Treasury met its legal obligations in implementing the Spending Review this was said: “we do not believe that the government as a whole has fully grasped the way in which case law has elucidated the requirements of the [public sector equality duty] over recent years”.—This is about as strong as criticism gets from quasi-governmental organisations. Further insult is that the EHRC often takes part as an interested party in judicial reviews, many of which—perhaps inevitably at this point—involve the government as a defendant.

Proposing that, when looking at inequality in the future, the EHRC can only look at sex, race, disability, and so on, misses the reality that the reason for the under-performance of certain ‘protected’ categories is precisely that they come from a particular postcode, or that their parents never went to university. It misses, fundamentally, the interconnectedness of the different prisms through which discrimination law—and the Tories it seems—happen to believe that inequality is structured.

Equality isn’t cheap (question for whom) or simple, but it’s worth it: that ought to be the lesson in all this. Instead what this government proposes to do is to slash—and with the same brazen callousness demonstrated previously in its dealings with the disabled, the poor and the NHS—the budget and mandate of an ideal in the interests of barely-concealed ideology. In post-austerity Britain what use, or funding, will we have for equality, they ask. The sentiment is truly dystopian.

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