Tories to Scrap Duty to Assess Equalities Impacts

from the Telegraph

DISGRACEFUL

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, will say today that the Government is axing the measure, which had been dubbed “socialism in one clause”.

A ‘socio-economic duty’ on public bodies was written into the Equality Act by the then-Equalities minister Harriet Harman earlier this year.

However the duty – dubbed “Harman’s Law” – was never enacted, and the Coalition had been reviewing the measure.

Ministers have now decided not to enact it and will look at ways to repeal the measure.

In a speech today, Mrs May will say the Government is “scrapping Harman’s Law for good”, claiming that “it would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked”.

She is likely to warn: “It would have meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people’s life chances.”

The measure was the first time that any Government had made it an objective of all public bodies to reduce inequality.

Education authorities would have had to encourage parents from poor backgrounds to apply for successful schools in their area.

Regional development agencies could also have changed criteria for grants so that bids from deprived areas were more likely to succeed. Health bodies would have had to spend some of their budget in areas with the worse health records

Mrs May will warn that the measure could have meant public spending was “permanently” focused on deprived parts of the country.

She is expected to say: “At its worst, it could have meant public spending permanently skewed towards certain parts of the country.

On Gay Marriage

Daryn McCombe writing on Labour List explains that at their AGM, LGBT Labour overwhelmingly passed a motion calling for equality in marriage and have succeeded in getting their contemporary resolution into the priority ballot this Sunday at Labour Party Conference in Manchester.

One of the key objectives of socialism is equality of regard for every individual, and the equal right of everyone to dignity and respect. Two gay men or two lesbians who wish to commit to a loving relationship should have equal rights to social recognition as a couple, as any heterosexual partners.

However, I still think that there are some difficult implications to this which need to be thought through, relating to how this would change the nature of marriage. These relate to the current tax status of marriage and civil partnerships; and to church sanctified religious marriages.

Regrettably, some people think that using emotive terms like “sexual apartheid” will drown out the need for reflection on the wider implications on marriage equality.

Let us be clear, civil partnerships are not “apartheid”. According to law Civil Partners must be treated the same as married couples on a wide range of legal matters, including:

• tax, including Inheritance Tax
• employment benefits
• most state and occupational pension benefits
• income-related benefits, tax credits and child support
• their duty to provide reasonable maintenance for their civil partner and any children of the family
• ability to apply for parental responsibility for their civil partner’s child
• inheritance of tenancy agreements
• protection from domestic violence
• immigration and nationality purposes

The issue of contention is that the arrangements for marriage between heterosexuals and for LGBT couples are different. Therefore we need to address why there are differences. The current obstacles are twofold, relating to i) taxation; and ii) religious concepts of marriage. Click to continue reading

Inequality in China

Richard Seymour (of Lenin’s Tomb) has written another breathless and excitable article about China, according to our wise sage:

If the militant strike wave in China has succeeded in doing one thing, it is to have frightened the Chinese ruling class sufficiently that it is declaring its intention to tackle the shocking increase in inequality in the country

We need to examine the cause and effect alleged by Mr Seymour. Apparently the Chinese government are so frightened that they have only just now announced plans to deal with inequality, and their fear, according to Richard, derives from a strike wave that started in 2010.

Yet President Hu announced the government’s determination to tackle inequality at the Chinese Communist Party’s 17th Party Congress three years ago in October 2007:

We will improve the distribution system . . . [so] . . . a proper balance will be struck between efficiency and equity in both primary distribution and redistribution, with particular emphasis on equity in redistribution. . . . We will increase transfer payments, intensify the regulation of income through taxation . . . and overhaul income distribution with a view to gradually reversing the growing income disparity.

Inequality is a serious social problem in China, as can be seen by its growing Gini coefficient, which is a crude indicator of inequality, based upon income.

The coefficient indicates the gap between two percentages: the percentage of the population, and the percentage of income received by each percentage of the population. If, say, one percent of the population receives one percent of total income, and all subsequent percentages of the population receive the corresponding percentages of total income, the Gini coefficient is 0–there is no gap between the income and the population percentages. If, at the other extreme, all of the economy’s income were acquired by a single recipient, the gap would be maximized, and the coefficient would be 1.

According to Arthur Brooks in the Far Eastern Economic Review

America’s Gini coefficient climbed to 0.44 from 0.39 between 1985 and 2005, fueling the current arguments in the U.S. about income inequality and perhaps favoring the political fortunes of those who advocate greater redistribution of wealth. Meanwhile, China’s coefficient rose to 0.47 from 0.35 in the past five years, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Inequality is not in dispute, however the growth of inequality has been in a context where the poor have become richer: during the period between 1978 and 2002 incomes in China grew eightfold, and poverty at the $1 per day level fell from 29% to just 6.9% of the population, taking 402 million people out of absolute poverty.

According to Professor Danny Quah of the London School of Economics, China’s rate of increase of consumption, both of individual consumption and of total consumption, i.e. including government spending on education and health, is the highest of any major country in the world.

Inequality remains a terrible social scourge because of the over 800 million people still structurally locked into rural poverty. And the foundations of economic growth under former President, Jiang Zemin, followed the policies of the “Shanghai clique”; which favoured rapid expansion in the Eastern seaboard regardless of the consequences to the rest of the country, regardless of growing inequality, and regardless of environmental damage.

The CCP formally broke with this philosophy when President Hu took power in 2003 with his premier, Wen Jiabao, and proposed to set up a “Harmonious Society”: making a key government objective the lessening of inequality and changing the style of the “GDP first and Welfare Second” policies of the Ziang era.

Hu and Wen have focused on sectors of the Chinese population that have been left behind by the economic reform, and have taken a number of high profile trips to the poorer areas of China with the stated goal of understanding these areas better, and have subsidised development in poorer regions,  for example, through the “Go West” policy.

The 11th Five year plan from 2006 explicitly calls for more balanced growth based upon increasing working class living standards, and a more equitable pattern of sustainable development. Wen Jiabao, in particular, has stressed the need to increase the size of the internal market through developing the agricultural sector, even if that is at the expense of growth, and to expand rural health and education provision; prioritising low-income areas.

One of the greatest causes of inequality is the corruption and cronyism that stifles China, and at the beginning of 2006 Hu launched the “8 Honours and 8 Disgraces” movement in a bid to promote a more selfless and moral outlook amongst the population.

So whatever view you take of Hu and Wen, they have made a formal commitment to tackling inequality, that represents a stark break from the Ziang era, and this concern predates any recent labour unrest. What is more, there has been obvious government action in recent years to counter inequality for example with the health service reforms, pensions, and greater stress on environmental sustainability.

Indeed, one of the obstacles that Hu had been forced to deal with is the legacy of appointments to the politburo from Ziang, for example, leading “Shanghai clique” members Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin, Zeng Qinghong, Huang Ju and Li Changchun. While Jiang’s supporters have been less influential since 2004, when Ziang retired as chair of the Central Military Committee, there is still considerable support for these views in the party, academia, business and the government.

Labour and social unrest for higher wages and against inequality, is a bargaining factor in favour of those parts of the Communist Party and government who wish to demonstrate the necessity of following Hu and Wen, and isolating further those wedded to economic growth at all costs.

As I have said before: trade union militancy pushing for higher wages is not a fundamental challenge to the system, but one that is containable and compatible with it.

The Chinese political and social system is a very robust one for allowing interest groups to compete to shift priorities, and the increased organisation and combatively of organised labour is an entirely welcome development that is likely to find allies within the Communist Party; who will see it as helping to overcome the neo-liberals of the Shanghai School, and also as a mechanism for incorporating a layer of workplace activists into constructive social engagement. Indeed, China’s official trade union federation (ACFTU) has been able to leverage its linkage with the highest levels of the party and government to gain significant improvements in labour law, and the official unions have launched mass campaigns to educate workers of their rights. Naturally, the fact that workplace militancy sometimes bypasses ACFTU unions proves they are not fully up to the job, but whether they will be reformed or superceded is not yet decided. The more the political voice and organisational muscle of the working class is heard and felt within the Chinese system the better

However, the paradox is that the economic growth necessary to alleviate absolute poverty, and develop civic infrastructure in the inland provinces is also a driver towards inequality in the medium term. The emergency measures brought in by the government to stimulate the economy in response to the global recession may also divert effort from programmes to reduce inequality.

Compromise Can Still Be Reached

Recent controversies in the Church of England over the creation of women Bishops are very interesting as an example of how changing social attitudes perculate through society.

There is a great failure of understanding between the two sides. On the one hand, supporters of women Bishops cannot see how anyone can object to them. While Anglo-Catholics question how it can be right that the majority of the Church can contemplate excluding the minority who cannot accept, for reasons of scripture and church tradition, the authority of women Bishops?

As Philip Giddings and Chris Sugden for Anglican Mainstream point out:

The debate in synod is not about gender equality. It is about the liberty to hold within the Church of England two views about leadership in the church which are compatible with scripture and tradition. Most have accepted that there will be women bishops in the Church of England.

The problem the Archbishops were trying to address was trying to address was the problem of monoepiscopacy, the belief that only one bishop can have jurisdiction in one geographical area. Synod had two objectives:

i) To affirm that all bishops would be of equal status and
ii) To enable those who, on grounds of scripture and theology, cannot accept women as bishops, to continue to flourish within the Church of England without diminishing the status of women bishops.

So far we have yet to find a solution.

While there may seem to be an obvious question of womens’ equality; for opponents of women Bishops the issue does not concern the general competency or equality of women in wider society, but the narrow and specific faith issue of whether a woman can be a Bishop. This is a question governed by faith, and interpretation of biblical authority and the historical teachings of the church. For those who believe that God’s teaching is against women Bishops, no vote by the church can change God’s word.

The controvesy does not relate to women’s rights, and indeed it does not relate even to whether or not there should be women Bishops, that boat has sailed. The issue for Anglo-Catholics is that under the episcopalian tradition, Bishops can ordain priests and consecrate places of worship, as part of the Apostolic succession.

There is of course also a slightly different protestant strand within the Church, which would historically include Archbishop Cranmer, that holds that Bishops are created by authority of the church, not through delegated authority of God to Bishops. Within the Anglican communion there is tradition of allowing diversity of interpretations of faith, in the interests of the overall unity of the Church; in order to be a church open to all Christians. This explains the desire for compromise by some, like the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, who are seeking ways of both introducing women Bishops, while also retaining the inclusivity that accepts Christians who cannot accept the authority of such women Bishops.

For a Christian who believes that scripture and the tradition of the church excludes a woman from being a Bishop, the problem arises that any vicar ordained by a non-competent Bishop is not truly ordained. This is the reason that there are some who, while accepting that there will be women Bishops, still wish to have the option of their parish reporting to a male Bishop. That is the basic requirement for compromise.

Whether or not someone believes that a woman can be a Bishop is a question of their own individual faith; because the position of a Bishop only makes sense in the specific context of that faith, that church, and its specific superstructures of belief. Non-beleivers have no business in telling Christians what they should or should not believe.

The current mini-crisis therefore arises because the Synod has rejected Canturbury’s current compromise. Forward in Faith, an Anglo-Catholic group, has made the following statement:

We deeply regret that the General Synod has decided to ignore the leadership of the chief pastors of the Church of England Archbishops of Canterbury and York.

The voting was by the three Houses of Synod separately, with support from the Bishops and Laity but not from the Clergy. In total, 216 people voted in favour and 191 against with 9 abstentions – so there was support for the Archbishops’ amendments.

By rejecting the opportunity for unity that the Amendments they proposed would have achieved, it has made it very difficult for those who in conscience cannot accept the ministry for women priests and bishops.

The process in General Synod is not over and we would wish to be involved in the ongoing discussions as to a way forward that includes all loyal members of the Church of England.

Non-Anglicans of course have no particular stake in whether the Church of England stays as a united Church or whether those in favour of women Bishops force a split over the issue: although it is interesting that there are majorities in both the Bishops and laity for compromise.

However, there is a general point here where an ostensible equalities agenda is being pursued in such a way as to isolate and exclude people of religious faith who do not agree. Whereas a seemingly reasonable compromise is available that will maintain respect for those who cannot accept women Bishops, while still allowing women Bishops to be created. Such a compromise is an example of how differences of belief can be acknowledged while still allowing practical progress and convergence towards the pro-equalities agenda of wider society.

There is therefore a broader issue of how we include rather than exclude people of religious faith while we seek to build a more equal world. Faith based objections should not be allowed to impede progress, but we cannot expect deeply held convictions to be merely abandonded. That is why compromise based upon mutual respect and good faith is necessary.

Gmb Wins Huge Equal Pay Case

An Employment Tribunal in Birmingham has found in favour of 1400 women represented by the GMB union in their equal pay claims against Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in the land and run by a Tory Administration. The Tribunal will now go on to assess the level of award to the women which lawyers estimate to be worth around £30 million.

Brian Strutton GMB National Secretary said “We’ve been fighting for equal pay rights for our members in councils for years and one of the worst offenders has been Conservative led Birmingham City Council. They’ve known for years that they owe equal pay to their low paid women workers but instead of paying up they’ve tried every trick in the lawyers book to try to delay. In fact the judge said the Council had “acted unreasonably” in the defences it was trying to run and it has wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers money in doing so. But we’ve persevered and we’ve won. GMB women members in Birmingham can now expect very substantial payouts indeed, probably worth £30 million.”

now let’s watch what happens at Swindon Borough Council!

The Problem of Inequality

The reaction to the publication of the report “An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK” has been perhaps overly predictable.

It must be remembered that this report was commissioned by the government itself, at the initiative of Harriet Harman, and is designed to provide the empirical basis for making decisions on how to combat inequality. If the Labour Party were uninterested in combating inequality then they wouldn’t have commissioned such a comprehensive, warts and all, report.

We need to set aside some of the hyperbole first. According to the blogger, Richard Seymour, at Lenin’s Tomb: “New Labour has run, in many ways, the most right-wing administration since the Second World War.”. According to Harpy Marx: “This is what happens when a government adheres to a neoliberal and free market ideology, and that means class warfare. ”

The results of the survey are sobering, and should certainly be used to refocus the labour movement’s thinking both in what are objectives are with regard to overcoming inequality, and in how we seek to achieve them. But to describe the record of the Labour government quite so scathingly is a mistake.

The “most right wing government since the second world war” would not have brought in the national minimum wage, introduced civil partnerships, abolished clause 28, brought in Sure Start centres and Working Tax Credits, introduced meaningful devolution for Wales and Scotland, assisted a peace process that has brought Sinn Fein into coalition government in Northern Ireland, provided a statutory route to union recognition, created the Union Learning Fund, and overseen a fundamental shift in liberalising social attitiudes.

An unmitigated neo-liberal government committed to “class war” against the poor would not have brought an extra 2.4 million people into work (comparing 2007 to 1997), lifted 2.4 million over the relative poverty line, taken one million pensioners out of poverty, and moved the UK from having the highest levels of child poverty in Europe in 1997 to close the European average by 2007.

To criticise the record of the government, we need to understand what they tried to achieve, and then to assess what they should have done differently.

Liam Mac Uaid is horrified that relative social mobility has declined. This is indeed disappointing, as there had been a tentative expectation that social mobility was going to show an improvement in this report, but this would have in fact been the first improvement since the early 1970s.

We need to understand the concepts. Whereas improvements in absolute social mobility reflects the shift towards a higher proportion of high status, high income jobs and overall improvement in absolute wages, cultural and educational attainment and other indicators of social capital; relative social mobility addresses the issue of how much your life chances reflect the circumstances of your birth. Social mobility is a distinct phenomenon not necessarily related to either inequality or poverty.

It is certainly true that children from poor backgrounds growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in the UK had far worse prospects for social improvements than those growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. But what is interesting is that the shift in the UK over that period has shifted to become closer to the American norm, which had historically been more socially mobile than the UK, due to less weight being given to inherited social status.

The reason that relative social mobility is a hard nut to crack for government is that the low hanging fruit have already been picked: with the introduction of comprehensive education, raised school leaving age, universal health care and welfare benefits removing some of the worst disadvantages for working class children;  as well as social shifts that have lessened the effect of middle class snobbery.

What is more, shifts towards a more knowledge based economy reversed the trend, and increased the weight of class advantage. The proportion of young people going to university increased from 15% to 28% between 1988 and 1992; but while the proportion of young people from the most affluent 20% going to university rose from 20% to 37%, the proportion from the least affluent 20% increased from just 6% to only 7%.

The paradox is that increasing access to higher education has disproportionately benefitted the already better off.

There is also a process of residualisation occurring. This was explained by the Blairite minister, Hilary Armstrong, that decades of presumption by the left had assumed that removing the structural impediments that had crippled the prospects for working class people and lifting people out of poverty, would solve social inequality. This had seen decades of success but the last domino failed to fall: the poorest 2.5% of the population remained deeply entrenched in poverty, and increasingly disconnected from the social mainstream.

The argument here is that as the more superficial causes of social inequality have been addressed, those that remain are more deeply entrenched.

Whether or not we accept this prescription, this hard to reach, hard to help, minority of the population have been the focus of the government’s poverty reduction strategy. The typical pattern of deeply entrenched poverty involves dysfunctional parenting, with a family with patterns of low educational achievement, drifting in and out of the criminal justice system, problems with neighbours and perhaps undiagnosed mental health problems. Persons at risk of a lifetime of poverty will have clear warning signs: low birth weight, educational under-achievement, early sexual activity, truancy, etc.

The Labour government has concentrated in a series of initiatives, of which Sure Start is the highest profile to help the parents of disadvantaged infants, but also including the piloting of the “Nurse Family Partnership” model to give ante-natal and post natal mentoring and support for at risk families. Indeed this approach was at relatively high financial cost, reflecting a genuine conviction that this was the right thing to do.

The more problematic aspects of New Labour’s strategies for reducing inequality were the compulsive aspects of incentivising people back to work; but it would be pernicious to assume that this is only about saving money. It was based upon a sincere but flawed approach to reducing social exclusion.

The headline figure from the Anatomy of Inequality report is that the wealth of the top 10% is 100 times higher than the lowest 10%. This is not particularly surprising given the structure of housing in the UK, where the richest will own valuable fixed property assets that have increased in value while the poorest are renting, and own no appreciating assets.

Paradoxically, an increase in social housing that would provide substantial benefits for working people would not address this inequality, and indeed increasing the proportion of the population in social rented accommodation would further exaggerate the divergence of asset ownership between the richest 10% and the rest of the population. The Thatcherite push towards home owning created many people who were asset rich but disposable income poor. This is an important point to grasp because the issue of housing security does not have monetary value, but is more valuable than cash in the bank in terms of people’s satisfaction with their life.

The more relevant comparator is income equality rather than wealth inequality: where the top 20% of the UK population earn around eight times more than the poorest 20%, which is about twice the differential of the Scandinavian countries, but vastly more egalitarian than, for example, South America.

It is important to understand that for the Blairites, poverty reduction was the target not promoting equality per se , as they did not want to reduce the income of top earners; their target has been to reduce the proportion of the population on less than 60% of median income, by pushing up the wages of the poorest.

So what conclusions should we draw from this.

I have very little sympathy with the arguments being put by Dave Semple at Though Cowards Flinch which seem dismissive of the equalities agenda, based upon a reductive counterposing to “class power”, whatever that is supposed to mean.

There are two problems with Dave Semple’s approach of being dismissive of “Identity”. Firstly, in terms of people’s actual self-perception, and the perception of them by others their consciousness of being a woman, or black or English or Muslim or Christian is often a more fundamental form of self awareness than their “class identity”. This is the difference between a “community of character” and a “community of fate”, to use the terms coined by Otto Bauer. Negotiating our way towards a more equitable society needs to relate to people in terms that they see themselves, as well as relating to their often less self-evident shared class interests.

Secondly, discrimination is a class issue; because the unfairness of discrimination on bases of gender, or sexual orientation, of religion or ethnicity presupposes that there is a more powerful person who can discriminate, and a less powerful victim of discrimination. Winning the argument that discrimination is unfair, and that we collectively oppose discrimination through our unions is a brilliant example of the class based argument that an injury to one is an injury to all.

We need to understand the basis that we oppose inequality. Tony Blair was explicit that for him it was about equality of opportunity, as he said in a speech in 2006 “It is about our sovereign value, fairness. It is about potential never explored, talent torn-off unused, the inability to live a life free from the charity of others. The object is timeless: we want to expand opportunities so that nobody whatever their background or circumstances should be left behind”

This is interesting because the fairness he describes is the removal of external impediments to success, but it does not criticise the idea that there should be inequality between those who “succeed” and those who “fail”.

The individualism inherent in this approach is a reflection of Tony Blair’s acceptance of the core Thatcherite ideal that there is no collective social project that we all share; society is merely the accumulation of individuals, and government is there to mediate between them. Equality of opportunity is a good thing in so far as it removes social discrimination, but if you are only opening the door to different and perhaps more intractable inequalities based upon those merits rewarded in an acquisitive and greedy society, then you have not really addressed inequality at all.

Indeed it is the erosion of communities of solidarity, and lessening of the vision of social democracy as a transformative progressive project in favour of a fairer society that has required New Labour to look to punitive sanctions as the way of addressing anti-social behaviour, rather than community building.

The removal of unfair impediments is not enough to achieve equality, because we are not all blessed with the same advantages in life, and will not all be lucky, and there will be differences in outcome. The aim of a socially just society is to give equality of regard and respect to everyone whatever their social status, and to decouple political and economic power from social status. More egalitarian societies are happier ones, and expanding the social safety net reduces stress and fear of failure.

It is precisely because overcoming inequality is not easy, that it needs to have purposive moral and ethical foundations. A strong basis for a commitment to equality within the Labour tradition is to be found with R H Tawney, as I have discussed before.

Tawney regarded Capitalism as fundamentally immoral, because it is based upon individual gain and self-interest, rather than service to the community. Acquisitiveness becomes a primary goal in its own right, and the strong and powerful use others as mere objects for self advancement, and the weak and poor are encouraged to emulate the selfishness of the strong.

In contrast, Tawney regarded the communities of solidarity of the labour and trade union movement as especially virtuous, and the traditional labour movement priorities for overcoming poverty and unemployment to be moral. As such for Tawney, the industrial and economic struggle of workers against employers took on a moral dimension, because it was a struggle for power within the economy between profit driven selfishness, and collective social solidarity.

With regard to modern politics, the astute observation of RH Tawney is that liberty is related to equality. If freedom is defined as absence of restraint, then liberty promotes inequality, because the more powerful in our society have less constraints upon them, and the majority of the population will always be unfree.

For Tawney, true liberty is the freedom to act positively for the benefit of the community, and being empowered to resist the tyrannical demands of the rich and powerful.

It is absolutely clear that the preoccupations of New Labour with winning elections by spin and media management, is an abuse of their privileged access to communication in order to defend their own power, and thus relies upon a fundamental inequality. What is more, the New Labour strategy of triangulating around the hot issues that sway the undecided voters in marginal constituencies is immoral in the sense that RH Tawney would have understood it, because he believed that Labour politics should be purposive and transformative in order to develop a socially progressive consensus. For New Labour, holding and maintaining power has become the all-absorbing motivation.

But most importantly, if we look at the last few years of rampant consumerism, celebrity culture, bling and self-advancement, we see that New Labour has worshiped at the alter of the acquisitive society. The ethics of Tawney was that society should value collaborative and productive labour for the benefit of the community, not for selfish personal acquisition.

But it is a mistake to see the record of the Labour government over the last 13 years as all bad in this regard: indeed their policies were informed by an intelligent understanding of the structural causes of inequality in our society, and sincere desire to help the most disadvantaged. But their framework has been a timid one, and in the final analysis failed to acknowledge that equality has to rest upon shared sense of community, and that community is alien to the spirit of free market capitalism.

Nick Clegg Treading on Religious Toes

Nick Clegg’s ill-advised foray into the question of faith schools yesterday is an illiberal measure wrapping itself in the language of liberalism. (I provide a big picture of him because I had no idea what he looked like myself, he must be the most anonymous political leader in British politics for a generation)

Some of what the Liberal Democrat leader said on gay rights was positive and unexceptional. It would be sensible for civil partnerships to have the same legal status as marriages; and Britain should automatically give asylum to people fleeing persecution due to their sexual orientation or activity.

It would reasonable for Uganda’s membership of the Commonwealth to be reviewed if the proposed Anti-Homosexuality Bill is passed into law, not only because of the death penalty for certain forms of sexual activity, but also because of the disastrous stigmatisation of all people who are engaged in same gender sexual activity, or who are associated with them: even health professionals are at risk from this law.

(Incidentally, Labour MP Harry Cohen has tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM 575) condemning Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which is commendable.)

However, over the issue of the Commonwealth, Nick Clegg needs to be extremely cautious: if there is any action against Uganda, then it may be counter-productive for any move to be initiated by Britain; the lead needs to come from other African nations There is real sensitivity to the gay rights issue being polarised in Africa along an axis of resentment to colonialism, whereby Western perceptions of gender and sexual identity are being seen as imposed from outside. This is especially problematic as it can submerge indigenous African traditions of same gender sexual attraction and activity, and in some cases can even endanger the activities of human rights advocates in Africa.

Over the issue of faith schools, Nick Clegg is making a big mistake. He is of course correct that all schools, including faith schools, need to take the issue of homophobic bullying extremely seriously; but when Nick Clegg says that all schools, including faith schools, must teach that same sex relationships are “normal and harmless”, he is kicking over a hornet’s nest with his insensitivity to the beliefs of many religious people.

It is absolutely correct that the government should outlaw and penalise discrimination, and should promote equality. You can legislate for what people do and don’t do, but you simply cannot legislate to tell people what to believe. It would certainly be reasonable for schools to be required to address and counter prejudice against LGBT people, and for example, to counter homophobic myths that LGBT people are any more likely to be predatory or dangerous. However, the government cannot dictate that people who believe consensual same gender sexual activity is a sin should cease to believe that, or should be prohibited from communicating this century’s old part of their religious tradition to their children.

Many religious people sincerely believe that same gender sexual activity is wrong. And if they believe it is a sinful, then they cannot simultaneously believe that it is “normal and harmless”, as Nick Clegg seeks to require them. As the blogger Cranmer argues: “Whatever one’s view on sexual ethics, the notion people should be forced to teach as fact what are arguably matters of belief is disturbing; indeed, as one Anglican bishop has observed, it is ‘frighteningly fascist’.”

There are of course a variety of different beliefs within faith communities: prohibitions against gay sex for example in Leviticus should have no greater standing among Christians than the Old Testament instructions against eating pork or requiring circumcision. Other Christians argue that some dictates about sexual practices from the Old Testament only refer to what activity is permitted in the temple, and are not applicable to wider society. Other people of faith simply consider that the words of the Bible or Quran reflect the social practices of the times when they were written; and that then need to be interpreted differently and more permissively today.

But people of faith need to conduct their own dialogue, and come to their own conclusions within their own communities; and not be dictated to by the government. Of course, the dialogue in religious communities will be and should be informed by the prevailing equalities consensus in wider society, and it is right that the government should promote such equality.

However, Nick Clegg is seeking to impose his own views on others in rather an illiberal way, and that is not the answer.

Low Earners Exposed in Recession & Recovery

The Resolution Foundation, which is an advocacy charity for the UK’s 13.4 million ‘low earners’ has produced an interesting audit report showing how this sector of the population is particularly vulnerable in the recession.

Low earners are those living on less than average incomes but independent of state support, and are sadly an invisible group to policy makers. Low earners face significant challenges during the recession and recovery period, as they are:
• squeezed in the mixed economy – often too poor to access the full benefits of private markets, yet receiving little state support
• an overlooked group – they include the working poor but also a large number of people above this who struggle to live month-by-month on their earned incomes
• vulnerable to loss of work and with few or no savings – low earners are highly exposed in the recession and at risk of paying the price when public spending is constrained.

Some credit is due to the Labour government, as the introduction of tax credits and an increase in investment in public services since 1997 has benefitted the group. So that Between 1997 and 2007 the income gap between low earners and higher earners closed slightly, after decades of the gap growing; and for every £1 of tax that low earners contribute they are now receiving more back in benefits and the use of public services.

However low earners are highly exposed to insecurity by their vulnerable employment prospects. They rely more heavily on earned income than those on benefits who receive most of their income from the state, and higher earners, who have access to accumulated wealth and savings. By contrast, 64% of low earners said they have no safety net if they lose their job. Low earners are also disadvantaged compared with higher earners in a weak labour market because of their lower skills levels and lack of access to training. Low earners are also particularly exposed to cuts in public spending

Low earners are also most likely to be denied outside sources of advice and support; as they are not rich enough to attract commercial advice, but not poor enough to qualify for state and voluntary sector aid.