For God and equality

Is the Equality and Human Rights Commission in total disarray?

"Our business is defending the believer." Thus spoke Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph back in June. It was a good soundbite, at least a memorable one, but it has now come back to haunt him.

At the time, Phillips' remarks (he also suggested that religious identity was "an essential part of this society" and "an essential element of being a fulfilled human being") raised fears among secularists. But he also had some tough words for politically motivated Christian activists whose "old time religion" meant that they "want to have a fight and they choose sexual orientation as the ground to fight it on." So the Evangelicals weren't too impressed either. No one was quite sure whether Phillips had been announcing a change of direction, to give more emphasis to religion in the whole equality pick-n-mix, or merely trying to rebut suspicions that his organisation was part of "a fashionable mocking and knocking brigade." Perhaps he wasn't entirely sure himself.

A couple of weeks later, the EHRC announced - via a press release - that it intended to intervene in four cases of religious discrimination which had been rejected by British courts but were going to be heard in Strasbourg. This time, the message was much less ambiguous. "Judges have interpreted the law too narrowly in religion or belief discrimination claims," it began. It went on to accuse the courts of giving "insufficient" protection to freedom of religion or belief and having "set the bar too high for someone to prove that they have been discriminated against because of their religion." They had "created a body of confusing and contradictory case law". The Commission intended to "propose the idea of 'reasonable accommodations' that will help employers and others manage how they allow people to manifest their religion or belief."

Christian campaign groups were predictably delighted. The Evangelical Alliance even took the credit for selling the idea ofreasonable accommodation during its meetings with EHRC staff. Secular and gay rights organisations were (equally predictably) appalled, the latter mainly because two of the cases that the EHRC seemed to be supporting involved people who wished to manifest their religious faith by discriminating against homosexuals. Islington registrar Lillian Ladele wanted the right to avoid officiating at civil partnership ceremonies. Relate counsellor Gary Gary McFarlane didn't want to work with gay couples.

There was a huge row. Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association accused the commission of lending its support to "a deliberate agenda to stir up support for a re-Christianisation of our public spaces as a reaction to feelings of persecution." Behind the scenes at the commission, it is rumoured, feelings were running high. Publicly, nothing further was said.

It now appears that the EHRC has come to the conclusion that the courts' judgement in the Ladele and Macfarlane cases was right all along. An emergency consultation document which they've just put out in advance of the Strasbourg hearing seeking views announces the organisation's intention to oppose the appeals in those two cases while still supporting dissident cross-wearers Nadia Eweida and Shirley Chaplin.

Whatever the organisation is saying now, this wasn't the impression it gave at the time. Pink News was given to understand that the ECHR's proposal "could involve local councils allowing Christian registrars to swap shifts to avoid having to officiate civil partnerships, rather than beginning disciplinary action which then leads to 'costly, complex legal proceedings'". While the public press release wasn't quite so specific, it did feature the quoted words about the cost of litigation. It also implied that it viewed the four cases as involving essentially the same principle.

The intervention of one commissioner in particular seems to have been decisive. Angela Mason, formerly with Stonewall herself, gave a somewhat outspoken interview to the Pink Paper in which she downplayed the press release: "I don't think it fully represented the opinion of the commission." And she announced (and the consultation document confirms) that the commission "has already decided not to put forward 'reasonable adjustment' arguments if we do continue with our intervention."

Instead, the commission is seeking views on whether the concept of reasonable accommodation "would have any practical useful application." This, after several weeks of mixed messages and in a rushed consultation with a deadline only three weeks hence, suggests that the ECHR is in almost total disarray on the issue. The latest press release tries to reflect the blame onto the appeal process itself, complaining that the court has "only given us a few weeks in which to prepare our submissions" and that the principle of reasonable accommodation "needs more careful consideration."

The consultation document devotes most of its space to setting out the arguments in favour of a principle that the commission states that it nolonger intends to put before the court. At the same time, the September 6th deadline is designed to ensure that interested parties' views can be taken into account before the commission makes its final submissions. This makes no sense. It is explicable only as evidence of unresolved internal disputes.

The EHRC was always an unwieldy beast, dedicated to an official fiction that all rights are equal and that there is no necessary conflict between them. A report for Civitas earlier this month called for the commission to be abolished, suggesting that it "contributes very little to meaningful equality in Britain today" and costs the taxpayer far too much money. This latest saga certainly points to a troubled organisation, uncertain of its role, vainly trying to placate contradictory points of view, and bearing the impression of the last pressure group which sat on it.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage