Equality Bill has first reading in Commons

The Government’s costly new Equality Bill has been introduced in Parliament today and MPs will get their first chance to debate it within weeks.

Christian groups are concerned that the Bill will reopen many of the discrimination issues which have left Christians bottom of the pile when it comes to ‘equality and diversity’.

Business groups have also expressed concern about politically-correct bureaucracy placing yet further burdens on employers at a time of financial crisis.

The Bill will place a duty on public bodies – like schools and the police – to promote homosexual and transsexual ‘rights’.

There will also be a duty to promote religious equality but there is concern that this will be treated as the poor relation.

The Bill will impact Government contracts with private or voluntary bodies. It aims to ensure that contracts are only given to groups that show due regard to ‘equality’.

Last year ‘equality’ rules resulted in a Brighton care home for elderly Christians losing £13,000 of funding because it wouldn’t quiz its residents about their sexual orientation every three months.

Christian groups are therefore understandably concerned that the Bill could force them out of contracts with the state.

The Bill’s progress through Parliament could give some backbench MPs and Peers the opportunity to attempt further limitations on the religious liberty and free speech of Christians and others.

Business leaders have expressed economic concerns. In March the CBI employers’ organisation told the Financial Times that ministers should not be contemplating introducing such a “regulatory big stick” in the middle of a recession.

In February the Institute of Directors (IoD) said the Government put the estimated cost to UK businesses of its planned new employment laws at £1 billion per year, with £70.9 million spent on implementing the Equality Bill.

But the IoD has warned this is an underestimate, and says the Government has also exaggerated the potential benefit to the economy.

Earlier this year a leaked memo from Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, called on ministers to “advise on a moratorium on legislation and legislative announcements made but not yet implemented that will entail additional costs for businesses”.

This was widely interpreted to refer to aspects of the Equality Bill and has caused an ongoing row between Lord Mandelson and minister for women, Harriet Harman.

Harriet Harman, who is also Leader of the House of Commons, passionately supports the Bill and doesn’t want its scope to be narrowed.

In November Selwyn Blyth, an employment lawyer at the respected Pinsent Masons law firm, said: “HR directors have faced a great deal of equality legislation introduced by the government in recent years and with this bill it’s almost as if we’ve reached legislation fatigue.”

And a poll of HR directors found that a majority feel it will take yet more time to introduce the new regulations into their business – yet only half say the legislation will benefit equality.

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