May scraps ‘ridiculous’ equality duty but promises new action on anti-gay bullying

Home Secretary Theresa May

Schools will be given new powers to deal with homophobic and transphobic bullying, Home Secretary Theresa May announced today.

Outlining the government’s new strategy on equality, Ms May promised that a provision to delete historic convictions for gay sex would be included in the upcoming Freedom Bill.

The Home Secretary also announced that the ‘socio-economic duty’ on public bodies to enforce equality would be scrapped, saying: “You can’t solve a problem as complex as inequality in one legal clause.”

The measure was included in the Equality Act by the then-equality minister Harriet Harman earlier this year. Critics called it “socialism in one clause”, but supporters said it would ensure better chances for underprivileged groups, by encouraging poorer parents to apply to send their children to good schools and forcing health authorities to dedicate funds to areas with poor health records.

Ms May said that “pointless political correctness and social engineering” had made equality “a dirty word”.

“You can’t make people’s lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better. That was as ridiculous as it was simplistic and that is why I am announcing today that we are scrapping the socio-economic duty for good,” she added.

She said that the new duty “would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked. It would have meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people’s life chances.”

In January, Ms Harman said: “A person’s socio-economic background is still a key factor in determining their life chances – how they get on at school, the chances of continuing with their education, their employment prospects and their health.

“This new legal duty will fall on every strategic body that affects these life chances and will be a catalyst for change so that more people have a better chance to enjoy a higher standard of living.”

Speaking in London this morning, Ms May said: “We will give schools the power to take tough action to tackle bullying, including homophobic and transphobic bullying.

“And we also need to correct historical injustices. So I am pleased to announce today that we will introduce measures in the freedom bill so that it is possible for those with old convictions for consensual gay sex to apply for their record to be deleted from the police national computer so that they no longer have to declare them and they won’t show up on criminal record checks.”

In April, prime minister David Cameron told that convictions for acts which are now legal will be “treated as spent and will not be disclosed on a criminal record check when applying for a job”.

A government spokesman said that the details of the anti-bullying measures were still being discussed but would be implemented in a way that would not place bureaucratic restrictions on teachers.

Ms May did not mention religious civil partnerships or gay marriage in her speech. Ministers met with gay groups this summer and changes to civil partnerships are understood to be still under consideration.

Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, told that the new provisions were welcome.

On the measures to delete gay sex convictions from police records, he said: “Although that applies to a relatively small number of people, it was actually very traumatising for people who applied and are still applying for jobs, or indeed, applied to become politicians. So we warmly welcome today’s announcement.”

Mr Summerskill added that he would be meeting ministers in the next few days to discuss the new measures against bullying in schools.

He said: “It is a important step forward and it’s a very important recognition of the fact that the government acknowledges that it is a serious problem. We’ll be delighted once the final details of those proposals have been agreed with ministers and we’ll certainly be meeting with ministers in the next few days to discuss them.”