Vera Baird DBE KC

Writer, Lecturer, Parliamentary Consultant and Co-Director of Astraea: Gender Justice

Countering Lynn Featherstones equalities column

In Lynne Featherstone’s column of 18th November she described herself as someone who “spends every day fighting for equality”

She wasn’t last Tuesday when Fiona MacTaggart MP asked, in the Commons why her Coalition has scrapped the duty in the Equality Act 2010 for public authorities to assess the impact of their policies on the poor.  This, in sections 1-3, is called “the socio-economic duty”

“This legislation is just words” Ms Featherstone told a startled House of Commons, saying how fully she supported the repeal.

Last year, in the passage of the Equality Act itself, Lynne Featherstone said:

“The Liberal Democrats think the socio-economic duty is a good and important thing “  We fully support its aims (Hansard 11.6.09 Col 131-2)

“It is one of the most important elements of the Bill” (Hansard 11.6.09 Col 132)

And she presented amendments (many accepted) to increase the number of public bodies which would be subject to “one of the most important element of the Bill”. (Hansard 11.6.09 Col 131)
She was right. The socio-economic duty was good.  It would have helped to weaken inequality by protecting the poor from the adverse impact of public policies. But it won’t protect them now, torn from the statute book, by Featherstone and friends, despite her praising it as “a good and important thing” only a year ago. Chancellor Osborne is being sued, by Fawcett, for breach of a similar duty to protect gender. This is for the disproportionate impact on women of his spending cuts. So, the Tories do not want another enforceable duty, especially one on socio-economic equality that they would fail repeatedly. Their welfare and housing benefit cuts, probably tuition fees and, one predicts, many measures yet to come would make them fail it. It is impossible to tell a Court that you have had regard to reducing socio- economic inequality when you are systematically increasing it.
If Ms Featherstone was genuine when she said last year  “Socio-economic disadvantage is the greatest inequality there is and it would have been negligent for the Government to leave (this duty) out (of the Equality Act) (Hansard 11.6.09 Col 129)
How would she then have described a Government Minister who took the duty out? Not, I think, as “someone who spends every day fighting for equality”