Comment: 21st century Britain is no place for caste discrimination

By Keith Porteous Wood

On Monday 4 March: the House of Lords voted to make caste discrimination unlawful under the Equality Act, by a hefty 103 majority in the face of government opposition.

On Tuesday 16 April: a heavily whipped House of Commons rejected this proposal by a majority 64 votes.

On Monday 22 April: the matter returns to the Lords, who will decide whether to hold out or back down. Who will blink first?

Around 2 May: last business this parliamentary session – bills that do not have the agreement of both houses by then, fail.


In March, the House of Lords voted to make caste discrimination unlawful under the Equality Act, by a hefty 103 majority in the face of government opposition. Last week, a heavily whipped House of Commons rejected this proposal by a majority 64 votes.

The matter returns to the Lords today, when peers decide whether to hold out or back down. Who will blink first?

Business for this parliamentary session needs to be completed by early May. Bills that do not have the agreement of both houses by then, fail.

The National Secular Society (NSS) has been campaigning for caste discrimination to be given Equality Act protection for several years. A primary role of the law should be to protect the vulnerable.

Jointly with the Christian Institute, the NSS has written to peers encouraging them to stick to their guns and vote for legal protection. The 103-vote majority when they last voted to do so should be hard to overturn.

If a majority of peers vote in favour of this measure, as we are urging them to do, the government has a big problem. The state opening of parliament for the new session is on May 8th; and, in practice, there is less than two weeks of parliamentary time left to resolve this. Otherwise the whole enterprise and regulatory reform bill fails. So we hope that the government will concede this point, even if it is simply in order to get this flagship legislation through.

The arguments in favour of doing so are powerful.

In 2010, many organisations representing those of low caste were introduced to  Labour's Lady Thornton to make the case for this legislative protection. Like her, I was moved by their obvious sincerity and sense of injustice.

As a direct result of this meeting, the previous Labour government introduced an enabling power into the Equality Act 2010 to make caste discrimination unlawful when triggered by a ministerial order. They commissioned a report but, reasonably, wished to see the results before triggering the order.

The government-sponsored report found discrimination in 21 localities in Britain with estimates of 50,000 to more than 200,000 citizens classified as "low caste". Detriment extended to "work (bullying, recruitment, promotion, task allocation); provision of services; and education (pupil on pupil bullying); … provision of social and health care, in worship and in politics". Despite this evidence, the present government have refused to trigger the enabling power.

I and others have raised this matter at the UN, and it has formally recommended amending the law to make caste discrimination unlawful, as this measure does, "in accordance with the UK's international human rights obligations". The government rejected this recommendation which is also an obligation. And the NSS has provided the government with a legal opinion which confirms that the UK's failure to outlaw caste discrimination is a violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Article 2(1) and 6).

The Begrav couple in Leicester were discriminated against and harassed by their employers because they were of different castes and wished to marry. They spent their life savings on a discrimination case in a desperate attempt to create a legal precedent to benefit victims of caste discrimination, something that would be unnecessary if this measure was passed.

This case dragged out over two years and put huge financial and psychological pressure on the couple. Tragically, the case was aborted under circumstances which were not their fault.

In the Commons debate on Monday, Conservative MP Richard Fullertold the House: "This is a straightforward issue, caste discrimination in the work place is wrong and the people who suffer from it deserve legal protection. That's it. Beginning and end."

I have seen correspondence from a Hindu organisation encouraging opponents to write to MPs. It includes inaccurate claims about the government's report, which they are anxious to rubbish. Mr Fuller denounced those arguing that there is no evidence of a problem, making him "feel that action on this issue was all the more important".

Another Hindu objection is it will label the entire Hindu community as being "institutionally discriminatory" and have called a boycott of the amendment. This suggests a preference for the continuation of discrimination to an imagined slight. In any case, caste disadvantages those other religions, including Christians and the non-religious.

These opposition arguments are paltry, indeed so paltry that campaigners are left wondering what is really behind the government's continued intransigence. Certainly there are some very powerful and influential high caste Hindus behind the scenes with a vested interest in obstructing statutory protection.

I appreciate the government sincerely accepts that there is discrimination and that it is serious, as Sayeeda Warsi acknowledged when in opposition. Yet all the government has offered is education, which all would welcome and does not preclude legislation, and a conciliation service Talk for a Change, further burdening the oppressed by requiring them to confront their oppressors. This could not be any less appropriate, given the power imbalance between the parties (often, as in the Begrav case, employer/employee), as well as its institutional and therefore recurrent nature and its geographical spread.

The government has also referred the matter back to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, despite them already having endorsed caste legislation. Maybe a case of "we'll keep asking you the same question until you give us the right answer". From the government's perspective, asking the question again at least kicks the problem into the long grass.

The House of Lords is to be congratulated on once more standing up for the vulnerable: let's hope it does so again later today. If you know any peers, please persuade them to support Lord Harries' motion on Monday "that amendment 37 remain in the bill" – or if they are Conservatives or Lib Dems, at least not to oppose it.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, which campaigns to challenge religious privilege and for a society in which no one is privileged or disadvantaged by virtue of their belief or non-belief. The NSS is active in the media, lobbies the Government and Parliaments in the UK and Brussels, and Keith also campaigns on Human Rights at the United Nations.

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