We must not forget the equalities legislation passed under the Labour government, writes Stephen Twigg
One of the finest achievements of the last Labour government was comprehensive legislation to tackle discrimination, promote equality and protect human rights. However, after September 11 the world became more challenging and the focus shifted markedly from liberty to security. Although the lasting legacy of the Labour government may be one of conflict, we must never forget the remarkable strides the government made towards equality for all. Additionally we saw historic constitutional and democratic reform in Labour’s first term, but the early momentum was sadly not sustained.
The Blair and Brown administrations understood how important human rights and equality are for all in the United Kingdom. Labour made a firm manifesto commitment in 1997 to ‘incorporate the European convention on human rights into UK law to bring these rights home and allow our people access to them in their national courts’. After winning, the government immediately set a course to pass the Human Rights Act and in 1998 the act was given royal assent. Alongside this there was massive progress across the field of equality.
In 1999, the Disability Rights Commission began working to ensure that no one in the country with a disability could be discriminated against. Its power to investigate and enforce disability legislation was designed to ensure that disabled people were given equal footing in the workplace and society. Although the body would eventually become part of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, its work in championing the rights of disabled people in the UK was truly groundbreaking.
The Civil Partnership Act was a very significant piece of legislation for the LGBT community. The act granted civil partnerships in the UK with the same rights and responsibilities as marriage including property rights, pension benefits and next of kin rights in hospitals. The 2006 Sexual Orientation Regulations outlawed discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities, services, education and public functions on the grounds of sexual orientation. As well as these, Labour legislated to repeal section 28, passed the 2004 Gender Recognition Act and ensured an equal age of consent.
The pinnacle of the government’s efforts for equality came with the Equalities Acts of 2006 and 2010. The 2006 act combined all the previous equality acts into one central piece of legislation and it created the EHRC which has the role of promoting and enforcing equality and non-discrimination throughout Great Britain (Northern Ireland has its own equalities commission). Its scope is wide-ranging. It also serves as a national human rights body, ensuring and promoting human rights around Great Britain. The 2010 act sought equal access to employment for all and further cemented Labour’s legacy as the champion of equal rights and equality.
An important early initiative was the publication of the Macpherson report into the heinous murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. The report delivered a damning assessment of institutional racism which set in motion the government’s changes to ensure race equality across the country. The government amended the 1965 Race Relations Act in 2000 to ensure that public bodies had a duty to promote race equality as well as ensuring that ethnic minorities were treated fairly at work.
One of the central pillars of the Good Friday Agreement was a commitment to the ‘mutual respect, the civil rights and the religious liberties of everyone in the community.’ This agreement led to the establishment of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, which sought to ensure that everyone in Northern Ireland, regardless of political stance or religion, was given equal opportunities in all aspects of society. This historic agreement sought a Northern Ireland at peace, with human rights and equality at its very core. This is arguably the greatest achievement of the last Labour government.
This remarkable work on human rights and equalities by the last Labour government must not be forgotten. As Tom Burke, co-chair of LGBT Labour, said, Tony Blair ‘oversaw a greater jump forward in LGBT equality and human rights than in any other period in history’. However, there are areas where Labour did not do enough. One of the shortcomings was the failure to close the gender gap on pay. This is an issue still poignant today as woman continue receive on average 9.4 per cent less than men.
After September 11, there were a number of instances where human rights were eroded both internationally and domestically in the name of security. Perhaps the most shocking example of this was the American offshore detention centre Guantanamo Bay. This was used as a holding facility for people suspected of being terrorists from all over the world. The UK allowed 10 British men to be detained there. Shaker Aamer, the last British detainee in Guantanamo, was granted release after a long campaign.
There is a difficult balance to be drawn between liberty and security. After the appalling events of 9/11 and 7/7, it is perfectly understandable that the emphasis of the government’s policy shifted towards security. However, it could be argued that the line was drawn too far towards security at the expense of important liberties.
Labour’s first term saw a radical series of reforms to the constitution – the creation of the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the restoration of an elected city-wide authority for Greater London; the Freedom of Information Act; and the removal from the House of Lords of a majority of the hereditary peers. Additionally the Good Friday Agreement included significant devolution.
These reforms were important and long overdue. However, there was no consensus for significant further reform, so the momentum of the first term was simply not sustained. For me the biggest lost opportunity was the failure to hold a referendum on a more proportional voting system despite the 1997 manifesto pledge and the excellent Jenkins report.
The lack of consensus was highlighted in Labour’s second term when members of parliament voted on a series of options for the election or appointment of the second chamber – every single option was rejected. While devolution for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London was hugely welcome, the failure to devolve to other parts of England was a serious weakness.
To his credit, Gordon Brown sought to revive Labour’s constitutional radicalism in the run-up to the 2010 general election. It is an area to which I hope we can return as we shape a programme for 2020.
The last Labour government has a proud record on bringing human rights and equalities to the forefront of policymaking. It passed the Human Rights Act and comprehensive equality legislation and set up new commissions to ensure that legislation was working and enforced. These are some of the greatest legislative achievements of our generation. However, Labour did sacrifice some of its progress on rights and equality in the name of security. History seems to remember the latter – but we should remain proud of the former.
Stephen Twigg MP is a former government minister
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