Lynne Featherstone MP likes to describe herself rather grandly as “Minister for Equalities” In fact, she is a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (usually abbreviated to PUSS in civil service parlance) in the Home Office. During her pre-Ministerial life she had a reputation as a campaigner for whom no gesture was too demeaning for her to make it.
Now, as a Minister, she tries to behave all-statesmanlike.
And today, she was called to the House of Commons despatch box to answer an Urgent Question granted by the Speaker because a policy change had been announced to the media before it had been reported to Parliament.
And the announcement? This was that the Conservative Coalition, of which she is proud to serve as Equalites figleaf/Minister, has decided not to implement legislation passed by Parliament (under the Labour Government) earlier this year which would have required public bodies to take action to address socio-economic disadvantage.
And the justification? There was no need for such a duty and to include such a duty in Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 was “an empty gesture”.
Apparently, Lynne Featherstone MP – the Minister – wants to reassure us as she put it today:
“Equality is at the heart of what this coalition Government are all about.”
Of course, that is not what Lynne Featherstone MP – the non-Minister – said last year in the debate on the Second Reading of the Equality Bill. Then she called for even more powers in the Bill. Her words were:
“The Government should have made legislative proposals to tackle socio-economic inequality in a Bill of its own”.—[Official Report, 11 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 579.]
As Fiona McTaggart MP for the Opposition pointed out after Lynne Featherstone’s public u-turn in the House of Commons this morning:
“Dropping the socio-economic duty was not in the coalition agreement. It was a major part of the Equality Act 2010, which Parliament passed only this year. While we know that the Conservatives have never wanted Government to take responsibility for building a more equal society, that is not the view that the hon. Lady herself has previously taken.”
“What proposals will the Minister now bring forward to assess the impact of Government policies on the most disadvantaged? Despite her fine words, is it not true that this Government simply do not care about socio-economic inequality? The Institute for Fiscal Studies has proved that the Government are hitting the poorest hardest. If there is no duty, how will people know about the impact of Government decisions on the most disadvantaged?
With this duty in place, public bodies would have had to think about what they should be doing to improve life chances. We all know about Sure Start; indeed, the Minister referred to it. We know its fantastic work, and how its impact is greatest on the most disadvantaged children. Councils would have had a duty to take that into account if they were thinking of closing children’s centres, but she is now saying that they will not. Does she think that is right? …
The Minister said that we cannot deliver inequality by legislation, but the simple truth is that the Government do not believe that they have any responsibility to deliver a fairer society. Of course, legislation does not work like magic, but it is a key way that Government can change things. Road safety legislation does not stop all accidents, but it does make our roads safer and it does save children’s lives. This duty would have helped to make our society fairer, and it would have given poorer people a fair chance, so why is she scrapping it?”
Answer came there none.