UK equality bill: unease over legislating equal treatment for all

Pope Benedict told a group of bishops Tuesday that the equality bill before Britain's Parliament might force it to hire gays, violating church doctrine. The bill seeks to address a host of inequalities, from low wages to women to limited educational opportunities for the poor.

Britain's parliamentarians are mulling a radical equality law that its sponsors claim has the power to reshape the country into a fairer, less class-riven and discriminatory society.

But in some circles in England the bill is stirring unease because, in its quest for equal treatment for all, it appears to require private organizations to make hiring decisions that conflict with their deeply held beliefs. In particular, the Roman Catholic church has complained that such a law would compel it to hire openly gay employees, something against its own doctrine.

On Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI told a gathering of English and Welsh bishops in Rome that any law that curtails the freedom to refuse employment to homosexuals or transgender people "violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded."

At its heart, controversy over the bill represents two conflicting views of "freedom." On the one hand, there is the freedom of opportunity, and of rights, regardless of whom one loves or what one believes. On the other is the freedom of organizations to determine whom they associate with.

Britain's Labour government and boosters of the bill say that former kind of freedom is by far the more important. The latter kind, they assert, is something of a Trojan horse for discrimination.

The bill "will promote equality, fight discrimination in all its forms, and introduce transparency in the workplace which is key to tackling the gender pay gap," said Harriet Harman, the Equalities Minister and a Labour MP. "The bill will modernize and strengthen our law to make it fit for the challenge our society faces today and in the future."

But conservative opponents have accused Ms. Harman of crafting a law that makes some groups more equal than others. They highlight a positive action clause that makes it lawful for employers to hire women or ethnic minority candidates over other applicants.

The bill is sprawling in its scope. extending far beyond enhanced rights and protections for gays. If passed, it would compel all government departments to take steps to shatter the glass ceiling for women - who earn an estimated 17 percent less than men in the UK - and to boost employment of ethnic minorities and disabled Britons. It would increase education, healthcare, and job opportunities for the poor. The new law would also outlaw age discrimination, including the common practice of denying certain kinds of healthcare or insurance to the elderly.

Minding the rich-poor gap

The bill also take aims at Britain's entrenched economic classes.

A study published last week by an independent group of academics called the National Equality Panel found the gap between Britain's rich and poor is wider now than at at any time since World War II. This despite 13 years of Labour promises to cut poverty and boost social mobility. In today's Britain, the richest 10 percent of households are 100 times wealthier than the poorest 10 percent, the report found.

Analysts say that disparity feeds educational underachievement, poor health, unemployment and crime.

A more equal society is a happier one, or so the theory runs. The equality bill contains a clause that would make it a public sector duty to narrow the gap between rich and poor, according to John Hills, a social policy expert at the London School of Economics and chair of the National Equality Panel.

"Our report showed the ways in which disadvantages and advantages reinforce themselves across the life cycle; The issues that unravel before school, throughout education, into the labor market and into retirement and old age," he says. "Public bodies can clearly make a difference in how they ensure the services they provide are open to all and accessible to all."

Inequality has become a political buzzword as the UK turns toward elections in May, and politicians of all shades are jostling to show they have the most room in their hearts for the poor and downtrodden.

Pledge to fix a 'broken Britain'

Conservative leader David Cameron hopes he has stolen a march on the issue with his frequent pledges to fix a "Broken Britain." Labour has made class a key dividing line between it and the Tories, who represent Britain's affluent suburbs and are led by Cameron, a privileged former pupil at the elite boarding school Eton.

But concerns over wealth disparities do not mean the Equality Bill will be waved through Parliament.

Employers have already kicked up a fuss over the threat of more regulation and the drive for equal pay, which they say will push up labor costs. Companies will have to publish standardized pay grades by 2013.

Some want a more radical law, saying the bill has been juiced by Parliament and is now simply mood music from a floundering Labour government.

They cite the softening-up of the wording of key clauses.

"It has gone from a 'duty to deliver' to a 'duty to consider' the socioeconomic impact of their services. That's not really a duty at all," says Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone. "The Labour government has done some good things for equality, it's just a shame that during their last fling they have failed to really deliver."

Fringe groups also want a piece of the pie. Some low-caste diaspora Indians for example, want to see a caste discrimination clause inserted into the bill, to the outrage of mainstream Hindu organizations. Both groups have lobbied the Lords.

Experts predict a fierce fight as the bill comes closer to fruition. Harman, deputy leader of the party, is tasked with keeping the bill intact, although more concessions are likely as lobby groups organize.

A fudged outcome may leave the government open to accusations of overreaching. But the resonance of a law that puts class and equality at the center of British politics is not to be underestimated.

"A piece of legislation can be important and symbolic," says Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, a liberal think tank. "The Equality bill puts the seal on some of the liberalizing changes that have been taking place in Britain over the last three decades. The idea it will transform Britian is over-egging it, but until recently, Britain wasn't even talking about class and inequality."

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