Caste-based Discrimination Debate- 11 July 2016
My Lords, I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for introducing this debate. I confess my admiration for his persistence on this matter, however much I disagree with him. I hope it goes without saying that I stand opposed to all forms of discrimination. Having been a victim of violence and prejudice and having been forced out of the country of my birth because of my skin colour, I can sadly say that too much of my life has been shaped by discrimination. Yet I am strongly opposed to the amendment to the Equalities Act 2010 that was brought in during the last Parliament.
At the time it was passed, I was a Government Whip alongside my noble friend the Minister. With that role comes many great privileges, but it also means that there are occasions when you are unable to speak out on some matters that you care about. Unfortunately, this was one such occasion—I am sorry that I was unable to express a much clearer view on behalf of the vast majority of the British Hindu community. The Government were, at the time, opposed to the amendment to the Equalities Act for wholly sensible reasons. There are a number of difficulties with the amendment: reaching a consensus on the definition of caste; questions over the actual level of caste discrimination in the UK; the question of whether amending the list of criteria to include caste would actually be a help or a hindrance, given recent advances in case law through the Employment Appeal Tribunal. The Government’s position was supported by the elected House of Commons, but a coalition of Liberals, Cross-Benchers and Labour Peers failed to heed the wishes of our elected representatives, with 181 Peers voting for the amendment, and 168 Conservative Peers voting against.
I feel that the amendment to the Equalities Act should be withdrawn for a different reason. I have spoken before in your Lordships’ House about the successes of the British Indian community and my pride at how well integrated the community is: it is a vital part of the nation’s social fabric. In fact, more than half the 1.5 million British Indians were born in the UK. They do not know what caste is or what caste they belong to. One of the advances the British Indian community has made is to embrace the values of this great nation and to leave behind the rigid, outdated and divisive notions of caste. This has been a great advance and differentiates us from almost every state in India. My concern is that, however well intentioned the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, is in pushing this cause, he is actually bringing to the surface social forces that are almost entirely irrelevant to this country.
I do not believe that those communities who come to the UK should be able to bring their own values and rules. They should make every effort to fit into the society around them. By making caste such a prominent part of our discrimination laws, I fear that we are undermining community cohesion rather than strengthening it. All noble Lords will agree that this matter is hugely divisive. The British Hindu community has felt somewhat persecuted by this caste discrimination campaign. They cannot understand why, when there is so little evidence of caste discrimination, we are pressing ahead with legislation that our elected representatives did not support. It points to a worrying trend; we are so often looking for ways to differentiate ourselves from each other, to find subcategories that we belong to. I fear that this is yet another way of trying to make people different, rather than looking to unite people.
I urge the Government to bring forward legislation to repeal the amendment to the Equality Act 2010. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement. It is unnecessary, given that there is little hard evidence of caste discrimination. The amendment supports out-of-date notions of caste that belong in a different continent, it was not supported by our elected representatives, and it is divisive and hugely offensive to most British Hindus. I hope that the Minister will set out a clear path for repeal of the amendment as soon as possible.
The full debate can be read through the following link: