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Comment: Can Lord Alli save the Equality Bill?

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Last week one of only three openly gay peers in the House of Lords launched a bold attempt to prevent history repeating itself.

Waheed Alli is collecting and marshalling public opinion in the hope of forcing the House of Lords, known as the place equality legislation goes to die, to pass the government’s upcoming Equality Bill.

However he may be in for a bigger battle than he expects. Opponents of the bill, organising themselves under the banner of economic competitiveness, are claiming that now is not the time to put further burdens on business. Troublingly, this argument could hold some sway, especially amongst those who know little of the issues, despite the fact it is glaringly false.

For a start, these opponents will claim that the additional costs of equality will force companies to go bust. However, the only real expense is the long term equalising of the gender pay gap by stopping companies from preventing workers discussing their pay. This effect will be spread out over several years and therefore will have little impact on the recession.

They will then continue by arguing that if the government only buys from companies that have equality policies that some businesses will lose their profitable contracts leading to redundancies. However, the bill isn’t reducing the £175bn the government spends every year in the private sector, it will just mean that only those who promote diversity will be able to get a slice of it. Any jobs lost will be compensated by growth in those companies that do support equality, after all the government will still need the same products and services as before.

However the economic arguments are just a smokescreen allowing the opponents of the bill to attack the thing they actually have a problem with, the single equality duty. The duty simply states that all public bodies have to think about the needs of minorities to prevent rather than react to problems, bringing the rules for anti-gay discrimination into line with those used for race, disability and gender.

Currently a quarter of lesbian and gay people believe they would be treated worse by the police than any other victim if they reported a homophobic hate crime. Under the new rules the police would actively have to tackle this perception and ensure that people feel comfortable revealing their orientation.

So far so harmless? Unfortunately not. Applied to another example, say a faith school, and the single equality duty could become explosive. Imagine anti-gay teachers being forced to deal with homophobia and lead frank discussions about sexuality in the classroom. The opponents will claim that doctors, teachers, police officers will be fired unless they betray their faith.

Sadly there is little way of avoiding this clash of gay and religious rights. To appease the opponents the single equality duty would have to be watered down to the point of becoming largely ineffective. The bill, originally designed to unify and harmonise all existing equality laws, would need so many loopholes and caveats as to defeat its own purpose.

The bill is a huge step towards full equality in this country and this may be our only chance of passing it. We will just have to hope that Lord Alli can succeed in his mission to defeat these enemies of equality.

To support Lord Alli’s efforts go to: www.equalitybill.com

Tom Hewitson is a freelance journalist who has written for various gay publications. For more info go to www.tomhewitson.com

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