Monday, 5 July 2010

Why is this still legal? The Equality-on-a-good-day Act

Why is this even legal? According to the BBC:

Residents of Firhall, built in the early Noughties on the outskirts of Nairn in the Highlands, must abide by certain rules. The deeds for their properties prohibit the keeping of ducks, rabbits, pigeons and bees. Households are allowed to have one dog - but controversially no resident children. To own a house in Firhall you must be over 45 years old. Grandchildren and the children of friends can visit and stay, but there are even limits on how often this happens.

It's not the only thing that's surprisingly legal, either. So much for the grand claims that the Equality Act would protect those most vulnerable to discrimination.

Looking at the Equality Act 2010, this appears to be entirely legal:

4 [...] The following characteristics are protected characteristics [...] age [...]

Part 4: Premises [...] 32.1 [...] This Part does not apply to the following protected characteristics [...] age

Looking at section 17, the terms would be unenforcable for the first 26 weeks of a child's life if their mother was already there, but that's all. (Of course, it would be relatively rare for a mother over the age of 45 to be living there, but not impossible). Otherwise, they seem to be within the exceptions the law provides.

Another unpleasant exception in this section, that I found in my "how is this possibly legal" search - you are allowed to harass people occupying or applying to occupy (as tenants) on the grounds of their sexual orientation or religion.

There's a similar but slightly broader exception in the Education section (which only applies to schools, not to FE colleges and Universities1), the same exception in the Provision of Services section, and in the membership of associations section.

So Labour and the Lib Dems get an LGB-friendly reputation for supporting this legislation (the Lib Dems, to be fair to them, did attempt to amend some of these bits out), which mostly seems to consist of "You must supply these services to LGB2 people, but you can '[create] an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for [them]' as much as you like in the process."

Additionally, neither "marriage and civil partnership" nor "pregnancy and maternity" are characteristics to which the harassment section applies at all.

There were some good bits in the Equality Act that hadn't been there before, such as the pay audits and the recognition of the existence of intersectional discrimination, and it's not as if by having these exceptions it was removing protections that previously existed, but it still hardly deserves the name. It's not as if this was a drafting error and an unnoticed loophole was left in until it was too late to take it out (though that, in its casual disregard, would be bad enough) - because of the way the Act is worded, someone had to specifically insert these exceptions.

Additionally, you can use these terms to push a lot of other things through. The Act doesn't say how wide an age group has to be, so you can legally say "Sorry, I don't rent to people who were born on 3rd April 1972 between 2am and 2:30am", and provided you then apply that rule consistently to later default tenants, you have a perfectly legal reason3 not to rent to any non-default person you like.

Other things that are entirely legal under the Act and really shouldn't be (or at least, if there is a real need for an exception, it should be the exception that is legal, not the rule):

  • Pregnancy and maternity, and marriage/civil partnership, are excluded from the intersectional discrimination laws. So discrimination against all married people is disallowed, and discrimination against all women is disallowed, but discrimination only against married women is apparently fine (barring explicit exceptions elsewhere in legislation, of course)
  • Refusing to provide a service to married and civilly-partnered people. (You can't, at least, just pick one and sneak in some homophobia) Similarly for single people.
  • Same things for premises
  • Same things for education (yes, your university can refuse to provide an education for single and/or unofficially partnered people, and I have no idea why, and likewise a qualifications board can legally withdraw qualifications from people when they get married/civilly-partnered, though what possible reason4 they'd have to want to I don't know)
  • Additionally, the exception for harassment in schools applies to gender identity as well as the sadly usual pair of sexual orientation and religion
  • The exceptions for what can't be required as a "reasonable adjustment" for disabled people are extensive.

The only area that doesn't seem to have masses of exceptions is employment. I may have missed some other exceptions, since there are a lot and the phrasing used for them varies.

1 Yes, seriously. Apparently homophobia in admissions is essential, and banning it would have terrible consequences for the rights of bigots at the primary and secondary stage, but at the tertiary level the rights of bigots are unimportant. This makes even less sense than usual.

2 It's not at all clear to me whether any of the Act applies at all to asexual people. It can be read either way. The explanatory note suggests that it doesn't apply to them, but I think a good lawyer could probably convince a judge that it did.

3 Disclaimer: not legal advice. If you try this argument you deserve everything you get.

4 "We've been homophobic for centuries and we're not going to stop now" is not a good reason, nor one that governments should be supporting people in, but you can at least understand which group of bigots lobbied to have that exception included. Some of these it's not at all clear why anyone would ask for them.