Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Semi-Equality Act: EU directives, and views from the Minister

So, the message from the Equalities Office referred to four European Directives, claiming that they meant that the harassment protections were necessary to implement EU law - with the nasty implication, of course, that if it weren't for those directives, it would be legal to harass people in a racist, sexist or disablist fashion, provided that it didn't constitute direct or indirect discrimination.

  • 2000/43/EC: article 2, paragraph 3 defines harassment as a type of discrimination, and article 3 sets out various areas in which it applies.
  • 2000/78/EC: article 2, paragraph 3 again defines harassment, with articles 1 and 3 setting out that this applies to age, sexuality, disability and religion or belief, in contexts relating to employment only.
  • 2002/73/EC: this is similar to 2000/78/EC but for gender discrimination and harassment in employment. It states that sexual harassment is to be considered harassment and that marital and family status cannot be used as 'covers' for discrimination.
  • 2006/54/EC (PDF): extends 2002/73/EC slightly.

The Equalities Office's claim is that because of these EU regulations, the prohibitions on harassment are not redundant as they implement EU regulations.

However, the Equalities Act rightly goes beyond the requirements of the EU regulations - it forbids harassment on the grounds of gender, age and disability in many contexts other than employment.

There seems little point in raising this with the Equalities Office itself, however. It's fairly clear that their job is to defend the existing law as if it were perfect, until such time as it is changed by Parliament into another perfect form. To an extent that's even a reasonable requirement to place upon the civil service, but it does mean that getting answers to "why" questions out of them is near-impossible.

Meanwhile, the Equalities Minister, Lynne Featherstone MP (Lib Dem, Hornsey & Wood Green) was celebrating the Equality Act becoming active on 1 October. There were several comments criticising the reversals in equality for trans people that the Act caused, which she promised to look into, while expressing doubt (like her office: in opposition to what the Act's own text and Explanatory Notes says) that the Act actually would have that effect. Hopefully there she'll get some good legal advice and be in a position to repeal1 some of those exemptions, which are designed to allow the provision of a service for transphobic individuals at the expense of trans people.

On the harassment exemptions her comment was:

Yes – Evan [Harris, then-MP for Oxford West & Abingdon] and I fought very hard over the differential discrimination in terms of LGB at school – and Labour took no notice. EU is looking at this too at the moment. Will say more when I know more.

So it looks like the EU route may be the best way to get these provisions repealed1, though not a particularly quick one.

1 Her Conservative coalition partners are planning a "Great Repeal Bill", though repealing clauses of legislation for the purpose of strengthening it - especially equality legislation - is probably not what they have in mind. Still, once that bill gets to first reading I'll suggest it.