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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Equality and Diversity

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

At a roundtable event held at the French Embassy in London and attended by Azouz Begag, French Minister for Equal Opportunities, Meg gave the following speech.


When discussing these issues it’s sometimes too easy to forget the progress we have made since, say the 1950s and 1960s. The overt racism shown by ‘No Blacks Here’ notices at lodging houses, open employment discrimination, refusal to serve people in shops and pubs - thank goodness these are, in the main, in the past. Compared with the 1950s and 1960s equality between individuals, and good relations between communities, is better. 


The Equalities Review has calculated that at the present rate of change it will take until 2080 to elect a fully representative House of Commons. That it will take until 2105 to close the ethnic employment gap and until 2085 to close the gender pay gap. So, the challenge is still with us, and the failure to speed up progress presents risks for community cohesion up-and-down the country.


The 2001 disturbances in a number of Northern towns shocked the country; the underlying problems were either not seen, or had been around so long they had become accepted as part of life. Ted Cantle [expected to attend the roundtable] has played an important role in examining what happened, helping government analyse the problems that are there.


In London we are approaching the anniversary of the 7th July bombings, an event which heightened the importance, and difficulty, of our engagement with Muslim communities. More recently, disturbances in the Lozells district of Birmingham between black and Asian communities brought home how tensions between minority communities can arise and spread.   


The far right has been active, using problems within communities to advance their simplistic policies. Unfortunately they have been able to attract some support in localised areas, having members elected on to some local councils.   


In a larger context we have globalisation, which along with international migration, pose new opportunities and new challenges. The fair and effective operation of our labour markets is a necessary condition for a healthy economy. As well as being necessary for the cohesiveness of our communities.


Our Response

Major public programmes are having a profound impact on the lives of many the most disadvantaged. Programmes such as;

  • the New Deal,
  • the Minimum Wage,
  • Sure Start programme, and
  • Neighbourhood Renewal. 

The work on devolution and social cohesion, through Government Offices in the Regions, and Local Area Agreements, will continue to have a positive impact on opportunities and community relations. We also have two significant projects beginning, the Thames Gateway and the infrastructure for the 2012 Olympics. 


Government’s race equality and cohesion strategy, Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society’, was published in January 2005 and continues to guide much of our policy. Key features are;

  • recognition of the interdependence of equality and cohesion (inequality generates tensions, hate and prejudice impede equality),
  • monitoring, including racial monitoring, is crucial. Without it, we can’t tell where the inequalities arise or show that they are being tackled
  • positive action in employment in terms of training and encouragement (though not positive discrimination)
  • mainstreaming equality in each Government department plans - for example, education targets include specific targets for overcoming educational under-achievement by disadvantaged racial groups,   
  • role of public authorities as a major sector of the economy and driver of change. In recent years we have imposed positive duties to promote good race relations and promote equality (racial, gender and disability, with more to follow). These duties are enforceable by the equality commissions. We are also looking at their procurement power as a way of encouraging good practice in the private sector, 
  • capacity building - this is about helping communities to help themselves and strengthening their voluntary infrastructure. We have grant programmes for this, including the CRE’s grants for local race equality groups,
  • criminal law safeguards against hate crime and incitement, backed by police and prosecution policies to enforce these effectively. (The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 has introduced a new offence of incitement to religious hatred, although Parliament defined it more narrowly than we wanted.) 
  • civil law safeguards against discrimination, e.g. Parts 2 and 3 of the Equality Act, which outlaw discrimination by service providers and public authorities on grounds or religion or belief and on grounds of sexual orientation.  

Muslim Engagement

As I mentioned earlier, the 7th July bombings in London heightened the importance, and difficulty of our engagement with the Muslim community. The Prime Minister outlined a 10-point plan following the event leading to the convening of 7 working groups with community representatives; over 1000 people took part in public meetings. The groups produced a report called Preventing Extremism Together. Three major initiatives from it are now under way;

  • the Muslim scholars road show enabling mainstream leaders to put their perspective on extremism - the road show has engaged with about 30,000 young Muslims around the country
  • MINAB, the Mosques and Imams Advisory Board, which will be launched on 27th June,
  • new standing forums on extremism and islamophobia, both local and national. These are not yet launched, but Leicester, and Dudley will among the first sites for the local forums. 

Government Structural Change

In May a series of changes in Government structure took place that help to consolidate responsibility for equality and community cohesion. The Department for Communities and Local Government is charged with driving democratic renewal, economic regeneration, building communities that are tolerant, cohesive and fair, and championing social justice and equality across government.


It brings together responsibilities for local government and neighbourhood renewal, with responsibilities for communities, race, faith, gender and equalities. It will lead on Muslim equality and capacity building issues, while the Home Office will lead on extremism and islamophobia.


The department has an ambitious agenda, to modernise our understanding of equality and diversity and transform the life chances of the many groups and individuals within our society who experience discrimination and disadvantage.


In this field, we see our goal as being to

“create a society where people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination, where there is equal opportunity for every individual to participate in society, and where there is respect for the dignity and worth of every individual  and good relations between communities are fundamental government objectives” (taken from section 3 of the Equality Act 2006).


Taking Forward the Next Steps

As part of the changes I moved across to the new department.  One of the areas of my work is connected with the following programmes;

  • The Equalities Review, currently under way with Trevor chairing. It will advise on the remaining areas of persistent inequality and what can be done about them,
  • The Discrimination Law Review is reviewing the scope for simplifying, updating and extending the many different pieces of legislation in the equality area in order to make them easier for employers, providers and individuals,
  • A new time-limited Integration Commission, likely to be launched soon.  

These three work streams will help to inform two major institutional changes to which the government is committed;

?        the Commission for Equality and Human Rights - a single equality champion which will also promote good relations and human rights,

?        a Single Equality Act - which will make equality law simpler and more effective for individuals, service providers and employers. It will also extend protection to groups currently left out.   


Examining issues such as ‘equality’ inevitably throws up questions. For example;

  • is an equality framework based on individual rights, which are enforceable through tribunals and courts, the best way to achieve real change?
  • is it useful or possible to create a single platform of legal rights across all strands?
  • what criteria and evidence should justify a legal intervention?
  • what should be the balance between alternative dispute resolution and court action?
  • what is the right balance between legislation, other policy interventions and cultural change?
  • how can move away from a situation where equality is perceived as ‘politically correct’ and as ‘special privileges for the minority’, rather than as opportunity for all? 

All these issues arise in relation not only to equality, but also to cohesion and integration. The coming months will give an opportunity to consider all these issues, and hopefully come up with ideas of how we can take forward further the ideals of equality, (I nearly said liberty and fraternity!).   

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