Equality Bill may be a vote loser, says Labour minister

A Cabinet Minister has suggested that the unpopular Equality Bill could damage Labour’s election chances.

The Party must consider what will be “popular and successful” in taking the Bill forward, Communities Minister John Denham had planned to warn last night.

In the event he dropped the reference from his speech, but still said that new research into public opinion had “sounded the death knell” for left-liberal thinking on equality.

Mr Denham said: “If we continue to believe that the egalitarian approach is really the right one, and that our main task, somehow, is to find more cunning ways of getting there, we will fail.”

Mr Denham prepared the speech for a meeting of the left-leaning Fabian Society think-tank.

Mr Denham’s original script, reported by The Guardian on Tuesday, contained the warning that Labour needed “to be very clear what types of strategies and approaches by public bodies in response to the Bill are likely to be popular and successful”.

His comments have been interpreted as an attack on fellow Cabinet Minister Harriet Harman who is steering the controversial Equality Bill through Parliament.

The Bill has already prompted criticism from religious groups, large and small businesses, health workers and insurance companies.

Miss Harman’s announcement that social background would be added to the extensive list of equality ‘grounds’ it would cover was met with allegations that the Bill would spark a ‘class war’.

Alongside homosexual and transsexual rights, public bodies would be given a new duty to promote class equality.

But Mr Denham said the public were less concerned about disparities in wealth if people had earned their position through talent or effort.

He said: “We will be more successful – not just electorally but in challenging unacceptable inequality – if we adopt and own a different, more nuanced view of fairness and equality”.

The Government has been warned by religious groups that several new proposals in the Bill could restrict their freedoms.

Under the current law, religious groups can restrict certain posts to Christians whose private conduct is consistent with the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics. These posts must be for the purposes of organised religion, which could include jobs like a youth worker.

But under the Equality Bill the Government is specifying that this protection can only apply to posts that mainly involve leading worship or explaining doctrine.

The Bill’s explanatory notes make it clear that this protection “would not apply to a requirement that a church youth worker or accountant be heterosexual”.

Neil Addison, head of the Thomas More Legal Centre, believes the plans epitomise the failure of the Government to “respect the right of religious organisations to defend their own identity and to preserve their own integrity”.

He has argued in The Catholic Herald: “Nearly every form of discrimination is banned even for private associations and churches.

“Or, to put it another way, they are to lose the right to choose.”