Saturday, December 06, 2008

Religion and the public sector duty

Calling all bloggers! There is a piece of legislation which I would hazard to suggest is more important in its implication to the Muslim community than any counter-terrorism bill. This is because counter-terrorism law affects in the main a few individuals - and though I do not wish to denigrate the seriousness of any flouting of basic human rights such as the right to a fair trial etc. I don't think that a comparison against this forthcoming bill would find that counter-terrorism legislation is more deserving of attention.

I am of course referring to the Equality Bill which was announced in the Queen's Speech this week. This Bill follows on from the equalities review and the discrimination law review. The intent of this Bill is to declutter the law - that is to simplify all equality legislation and hence make it easier and hopefully more effective for public sector organisations to meet their equality duties.

I should provide some brief history: The Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 moved race relations law in the direction of tacking institutional discrimination. That is, what is it about public sector organisations like Councils or the Police that prevents them from providing a good enough service to ethnic minorities in employment practice and service delivery? The DDA 2005 and the Equality Act 2006 made similar improvements to disability law and law in relation to gender. Three further 'strands' began to request for inclusion as public sector duties - that is that tax-funded organisations should show how they are dealing institutionally with these strands: sexual orientation, age and religion.

The Equality Bill is about extending the public sector duty from race, gender and disability to include religion, sexual orientation and age. However, there has been a real behind-the-scenes debate about whether the public sector duty should include religion at all. The main campaigners for the extention of the duty to include religion have been from the Muslim community because they have suggested that there has been a distinct deficit that Muslims have experienced because of their religion. Including religion in the public sector duty is therefore very important if discrimination against Muslims is to be prevented and more importantly if there is to be a form of public and legal accountability on discrimination against Muslims. In fact, the prevent strand of the government's counter-terrorism strategy would be rendered useless in one moment if there was to be no accountability on discrimination against Muslims. In fact, it would be plain stupid. A massive campaign to win hearts and minds through symbolic, community development type projects while simultaneously permitting any form of service delivery or employment discrimination across all public sector organisations. How's that for joined-up government? (Could all members of the Young Muslims Advisory Group and Muslim Womens Advisory Group raise this issue at their next meeting?)

At this moment in time, religion is still being considered as a strand for the public sector duty. This means that if somebody were to be stigmatised at work because of his/her faith, then they could under this duty hold the organisation to account. Examples include all those instances when somebody has discriminated against you because of your faith in the past. I can quote a few in relation to myself. However, the Equality and Human Rights Commission that is charged to protect our rights has shown that it is wavering on this issue and I have some serious concerns:

a) the Commission has paid for some research to be extended to be conducted on 'Religion and faith in employment, education and services' by Marie Macey, Alan Carling and Sheila Furness from Bradford university. Who is Marie Macey? Well, her publications include: ''Class, Gender and Religious Influences on Changing Patterns of Pakistani Muslim Male Violence in Bradford". Would the Commission have funded a researcher to examine the case for race as a public sector duty if they had previously written on 'class, gender and racial influences on changing patterns on African-Caribbean male violence'? There are no Muslim academics in this country.

b) the Commission and the Government Equalities Office (which is the govt department that funds the Commission) have organised a conference on the implications of the public sector duty for the civil service. Guess who is giving the speech on respecting religion in public service delivery. Try three names and then click here to find the answer.

c) The joke is most definately on us. But it's not over yet. The Commission is funding a series of conferences on religion and human rights, especially 'what happens when rights appear to conflict and what sort of accommodation for religious practice is acceptable in the workplace'. Which organisation has been funded to organise these conferences? Click here for more information. And who is the only person with a Muslim sounding name speaking at these conferences? Maryam Namazie of the Council of Ex-Muslims.

The Bill is due to go through the Lords and Lord Lester is one of the main architects of the Bill. One of the main problems that we face in the Lords is that we are under-represented in it. Lord Lester said in the House of Lords on 26 June 2008 that 'All the strands, as we now call them, of discrimination are very well represented in this House'. As a campaigner, I do not hold this to be true. Here is an example of an unequal debate. There are hardly any equivalent Muslim voices in the House of Lords. We are under-represented and this means that as a community we are unable to defend ourselves as equals which we most certainly can. Please, keep an eye on this bill and get in touch with anyone you know in the House of Commons and the House of Lords to make them aware of the religion section of the equality bill and to work to ensure that the religion section is not diluted. Also, please ask the Equality and Human Rights Commission about what it is doing in relation to discrimination against Muslims.