You may have heard that the UK Government is in the middle of passing a bill called the Equality Bill. It is the cooking project of Harriet Harman, the deputy leader of the Labour party. She is trying to ‘streamline’ all previous equality legislation (such as the equal pay for women, and provisions protecting minorities from racial discrimination) into one all inclusive spag bol piece of law while adding new provisions (think mushrooms) and taking away some previous exemptions (parmesan cheese) in some of the ‘strands’ that equality legislation covers. The main addition to equality legislation in the bill will be that a centrally designed equality policy could mean small charities will become, if they continue to choose to receive government money, the little toes, or fingernails of the State because they will have to give up their specific faith based ethos. This will lead to an extension of the neutralized and neutered State, rather than a plural one. For shorthand I will call the equalities bill The Mess.
I call it The Mess because, while I think equality legislation generally a good thing and while this idea of streamlining should be in theory one that makes all equality law easier to understand (which to my small government mind should be understood as a good thing), in practice means a bought of the confusions for anybody trying to get their head around tensions between the various “strands” of equality that receive special protection under The Mess. It will lead to a string of court cases where previous case law will clash with unresolved or unclear areas in the hastily drafted bill, making The Mess spill over into real life in a wholly inefficient way.
At this point you might be wondering what strands receive special designation under equality. While people with Red Hair are not protected under the bill because of their hair, people with special protected characteristics are. So what equality actually means is equality for people who have historically been discriminated against, or for people who might currently be discriminated against by non-tolerant groups, organizations, in employment or by providers of goods and services. The protected strands are, age, sex, race, disability, sexual orientation and religion and belief.
What equality legislation means practically is that a restaurant cannot refuse serving people who have black skin. It means an insurance company will not be able to dismiss an employee just because he comes across as being a bit too camp. It means that a charity providing services to homeless people must ensure that the provisions to the homeless do not discriminate against muslims, or atheists. This is fantastic.
Yes and no. There are a number of problems with the bill which lead to said mess. Exceptions are made in some areas, which is not a surprise. Not to mention the problem of conflicting rights under equality. The adage that everybody is equal but some are more equal than others will also hold true. You will recognize that exemptions are needed in this sort of legislation for all sorts of reasons. For example the military and security services will be able to discriminate in employment for reasons relating to national security or other reasons partaking to the job required of the person involved. This is reasonable. Equally and for what I think are relatively pragmatic reasons Gay charities will be as they are currently allowed to provide goods and services to only Gay people. But this is something Catholic adoption agencies are not allowed to do when providing their services. This is disappointing and makes for a two tiered system of equality exemption.
Not surprisingly political parties will be allowed to discriminate in employment against people who do not hold the same ideology and outlook as the broad consensus of the political party. You wouldn’t want a supporter of the Conservative party cleaning up after a Brown-Mandelson brainstorming session. But will christian charities be able to discriminate against people of other faiths or of no faith? Well possibly, but certainly not if they want to apply for public money, which leads me to the main problem I have with The Mess.
The Mess could mean that charities which operate under a specific faith ethos and therefor only employ abstaining Christians will no longer be able to vie for Government money. This is not because they only employ teetotalers, or eunuchs, but because they only hire Christians. This would not be such a big problem, if the state was not as big as it is in the UK. If taxation were lower people would have more money to (hopefully) donate to a charity of their choice, hence providing for a larger verity of charitable organizations with differing methods and various ethos from which the public could chose their service provision. But given that taxation is high in the UK, it is less likely that enough money will be around to help a verity of different projects. So service provision becomes neutral and neutered. Out of this neutered state emerges a homogeneity of gray/brown service provision, rather than a plural distinct, but not necessarily an antagonistic network of charitable service arrangements.
What we lack in creative service provision we will make up for in cell phone choice.