Following an event held at the House of Lords by the APPG for Dalits and the APPG for Human Rights called “Dalit rights are Human Rights” in May 2016, Lord Harries called for a debate on 11 July 2016 in the House of Lords asking Her Majesty’s Government on the planed steps to implement anti-caste based discrimination legislation.
Lord Harries started the debate by clarifying that:
‘First, what we are concerned about is discrimination in the public sphere. The law is concerned with what happens in public. It exists to ensure that there is no discrimination in the areas of employment, education and the provision of public goods and services. Secondly, we are concerned with caste as a social phenomenon, which has affected all religions from the Indian subcontinent, including Christianity and Islam’.
He went on to summarise the steps since 2013 with regard to the caste discrimination legislation:
‘In July 2013 the Government introduced a timetable which set out a series of steps, including a public consultation, which was to lead to the implementation of this Act in the summer of 2015. As part of the process Ministers approved a feasibility study to be conducted into if and how it might be possible to estimate the extent of caste-based discrimination in Britain. A consortium conducted the research in the autumn of 2014.
The consortium’s report was due in November 2014, but it is yet to be published. My first question to the Minister therefore is: why has this research not been published? The question posed by the Government was clear enough. Is it or is it not possible to estimate the extent of caste-based discrimination in the UK? If it is possible, why has this not been carried out? If it is not possible, or if there is a downside to doing so, we need to hear the reason for that. In either case, there is no good reason to stop the process <…>. When we have raised these issues in the past, the Government have repeatedly cited the Tirkey v Chandhok employment tribunal case as a reason for non-implementation of the legislation so far. In that case the tribunal noted that caste-based discrimination can constitute unlawful race discrimination in certain contexts and that caste should be an aspect of race as defined by Section 9(1) of the Equality Act 2010. However, the judge made it clear that he was dealing only with the facts of that case and was not making any more general point about caste and the law.
I think the Minister, as well as the whole country would find it quite intolerable if issues of discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion were left simply to employments tribunals with no statute law to back them up. May I ask the minister why discrimination on the grounds of caste should be regarded as different?’
Lord Cashman stated he found ‘the most worrying <…> [the government’s] casual disregard of the United Nations and our international treaty obligations. The 2012 UN Human Rights Council’s recommendation could not be clearer. It states: “Put in practice a national strategy to eliminate discrimination against caste, through the immediate adoption of the Equality Law of 2010 that prohibits such discrimination, in conformity with its international human rights obligations, including”, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’s, “General Recommendation 29 and recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism”’.
Lord Lester QC ended his speech stating: ‘The current state of the law lacks legal certainty. There is no binding and authoritative legal precedent. That legal uncertainty violates the rule of law, and the government’s continuing inaction violates Parliamentary sovereignty’. He called ‘on the Minister to inform the House in her reply whether or not the government will now perform the duty cast upon it by Parliament, and, if not, what is their justification for refusing to do so’.
Both Lord Desai and Baroness Flather, Hindu Peers, spoke strongly and passionately on the need for legislation.
Lord Desai was clear: ‘It has been explained what the law is and what the Government ought to do. So why do they not do it? Obviously, there is a very strong lobby—let us call it the caste Hindu lobby—which is very powerful, prosperous and persistent. They have abandoned me but I know they would love to get me on their side.’
And from Baroness Flather: ‘Naturally, they are not going to say, “Oh, there is caste discrimination”. They are a powerful group of people. There are a lot of Hindu organisations and they have a lot of connections in Parliament, possibly in the House of Lords as well. We have to be aware that they have quite a lot of pull in this matter.’
Apart from the Minister, who did not give an opinion one way or the other, the only Peer to speak out against the legislation was the Conservative Hindu Peer, Lord Popat, who even went as far asking for the amendment to be repealed: ‘I urge the Government to bring forward legislation to repeal the amendment to the Equality Act 2010. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement. It is unnecessary, given that there is little hard evidence of caste discrimination. The amendment supports out-of-date notions of caste that belong in a different continent,’
Speaking on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Baroness Thornton did not mince her words: ‘We have seen the opposite of strong and swift. “Flabby and slow motion” would better describe the lack of activity since 2013. This lack of activity, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and others have said, shows a contempt for Parliament that is really unacceptable.’
The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission in their briefing for the debate stated quite clearly
– without any room for doubt.
‘In our view, it is both necessary and desirable for the Government to implement section 9(5) of the Equality Act 2010 (the Act), in order to clarify that the Act’s prohibition of race discrimination and harassment includes protection against discrimination and harassment based on “caste”. ….We therefore consider that it remains necessary for Government to implement section 9(5) of the Act in order to provide legal clarity.’
Lord Deben outlined that: ‘In her first statement, she (Theresa May) reminded the Conservative Party that her first principle was to ensure that all people had a fair do in life. Can one possibly say that and yet exclude from the fair do in life those who happen to be Dalits? This is the first chance that a new Government have got to stand up and tell this House that they intend to obey the law’.
Baroness Williams of Trafford on behalf of the Government ended the debate saying: ‘I agree that this is an issue which the new Administration, led by the new Prime Minister, who herself was Minister for Women and Equalities in 2010-12, will need to consider afresh, and I am sure that they will.
A full transcript of the debate can be found here.