Spare the public purse – bulldoze this equality maze

Hard times mean hard choices. It is very hard, now that the public coffers are empty, for any party to decide which public services to cut. All the same, not all hard choices are equally hard. I have a suggestion. It is to cut the whole of new Labour’s equality agenda as it affects public services. This is not as inflammatory as it may sound. Of course there are those in the equality industry who could not possibly accept that what they do is not an absolutely priority for public spending. Only 10 days ago Harriet Harman introduced an equalities bill with which she hopes to impose astonishingly heavy and expensive obligations on public bodies in the name of equality, if it becomes law. But there are many more thoughtful people, wholly committed to an ideal of equality, who might be persuaded to reconsider whether this agenda is really essential at a time of financial crisis, especially if they knew what it actually involved. Surely they would not argue that this vast agenda, with all its elaborate provisions, is anywhere near as important as looking after lost and damaged children, or protecting them from abuse. Nor can it be as urgently indispensable as paying for halfway decent nursing care homes for the elderly, or looking after people with mental illnesses. Our social services and mental health services and our care homes are quite horribly underfunded. Compared with these burning needs, the costly details of Labour’s equality agenda pale into insignificance. As things stand under legislation introduced in 2000, 2006 and 2007, public sector bodies, all 43,000 of them, are subject to statutory public sector duties. These formal duties place upon them wide-ranging legal obligations to promote race equality, disability equality and gender equality in everything they do or plan; all this is, in effect, driven and policed by the new mega-quango, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). I suspect many people don’t appreciate how hugely this has all developed since the Macpherson report of 1999 into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Post-Macpherson, according to the EHRC, it was clear that a “radical rethink” was needed about the way the public sector approached discrimination. That rethink was a great deal more radical than many of us have ever quite appreciated. A rejection of wrongful discrimination has somehow been transformed into a compulsory imposition of equality – an endless task, in any case, since it is quite impossible. The EHRC itself explains that those trying to drive forward radical change post-Macpherson felt that the emphasis of existing legislation on equality was on dealing with cases of discrimination after the event, not on anticipation and prevention. And they felt existing legislation was aimed at dealing with individual cases, rather than with issues within organisations such as institutional racism. So the new race equality duty of 2000 was designed to shift the emphasis: public bodies would now have a statutory duty positively to promote equality, not merely to avoid discrimination. “The effect of this was to place race equality at the centre of all policy development and decision making, resulting in organisational change.” In the same spirit a disability equality duty was imposed in 2006, followed by a gender equality duty in 2007. All this was imposed on top of existing legislation against racial and other discrimination. Whatever one might think of the underlying intentions, the effect of all this was to create a bureaucrat’s paradise – a maze without any exit, winding among compulsory equality schemes, policy statements, codes of practice, statements of objectives, impact assessment, “enforcement toolkits”, confessions of failure, internal consultations, restatements, information-gathering, ethnic bean-counting (as if that were really possible), gender bean-counting, the pursuit of numerical representation, interaction with stakeholders, external consultations, new plans, revisions of plans, reassessment of plans, networking, disability monitoring, training, self-assessment, review of progress, compliance and external inspection and all the correspondence pertaining to the above, in order to “pay due regard to the need to take action on race, disability and gender equality”. That, as anyone can see, is a requirement as long as a piece of string. One’s head aches at the thought of all the tedious, repetitive reading and writing and discussion involved for countless men and women, not to mention the incessant meetings. The cost is not merely astronomical – it is infinite. For when could any local authority put its hand on its heart and say its equality duty was done – total equality had been achieved in the new Maoist heaven of West Barsetshire? Surely it would be better, at least while public money is so scarce, to rely on the earlier legislation, pre-Macpherson, and on the goodwill of public servants, who, after all, are better known for political correctness in such matters than its opposite. It seems to me rather insulting to them to suggest that they need constant surveillance to do their jobs like decent human beings. I cannot imagine there can be many nurses or teachers or social workers who have racist or sexist inclinations and, if they do, they will soon be faced down by the anger of their colleagues, their bosses and their clients, not to mention the massed forces of unions, campaigning charities, advisory charities, industrial tribunals, the attention of the media and the majesty of the law. To say the equality agenda should be scrapped is not to suggest that anyone ought to abandon his or her ideal of equality. And it is most certainly not to suggest that we as a society should abandon our shared belief that unfair discrimination against people on the grounds of race or sex is wrong. Of course it is. I firmly believe that we are almost all united against unjust discrimination. That, of course, is not the same as being united in favour of a proactive equality agenda; many people have grave doubts about that, if they are not entirely opposed. But that is not the point here. The point is that this agenda, right or wrong, is dispensable. Just how much dispensing with it would save is difficult to discover. I challenge the National Audit Office to tell us. For if the great British public did know, I suspect there would be no political difficulty for any party in axeing this agenda, to make a huge and popular saving.