UK Politics

Outlaw caste discrimination in UK, peers tell government

Discrimination on the grounds of caste should be outlawed in the UK, peers said as they defeated the government in a vote in the House of Lords.

Peers backed an Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill amendment to add caste to race discrimination laws.

The government opposed the move, saying it had set up an education programme to tackle caste discrimination.

But peers said this was not enough, and the law needed to be changed. The government was defeated by 256 to 153.

The defeat was the second of the day for the government, with peers also challenging the government over the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in promoting a more equal society.

Ministers want to remove a general duty on the commission underlining the need to protect human rights and promote equal opportunity for all in society, but peers blocked the move.

'Racial prejudice'

As the debate took place, more than 400 members of the Dalit community - so-called untouchables - protested outside Parliament.

The Bishop of Oxford Lord Harries of Pentregarth - who introduced the amendment - said the British Dalit community had reached 480,000 and evidence showed they suffered discrimination in education, employment and the provision of public goods and service.

At the moment, the bishop said, there was no means of legal redress for those suffering discrimination.

"We know in the case of race that nothing has been more effective in reducing racial prejudice than the law. It has had a most powerful educative effect," he said.

"Nothing could be more significant and effective in reducing discrimination on the grounds of caste than to have a clear-cut law that discrimination in the public law would not be tolerated."

Former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Deben, who spoke passionately in favour of the amendment, said: "You can change the name from untouchable to Dalit, but you cannot change the fact that some people are treated in an appalling way simply because of the person they were born.

"I have absolutely no doubt that it would be utterly wrong for us to say to the world that we had the opportunity to protect people from this disgraceful discrimination and we decided not to do it because we had to have another investigation."

He said the history of the fight against discrimination was marked by people who did not want to change, arguing the issue should be looked at further.

'Programme of education'

"It was only when we changed the law and made it wrong not only morally but legally that we actually had the change in attitude and gained the protection that we needed," he said.

Crossbench peer Lord Alton said: "There are some values that we hold firmly in this country and we must stand firmly on those principles and not suggest to others that somehow or other to import those kind of conditions into the United Kingdom would ever be acceptable.

"However important things like trade relations are to British industry and developing cordial good relations with India and China, nonetheless the stand we take for upholding human rights and human dignity - the belief that no one is untouchable and that every person is of equal value - is the reason I am very happy to support this amendment."

Image caption Dalits in India still do the most menial jobs

Former Conservative Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern gave his "full support" to the amendment which he said dealt with an issue "which ought not to disfigure our national life".

For the government, Baroness Stowell said there was "some evidence of caste prejudice and discrimination taking place in the United Kingdom".

"We all want to see an end to caste-based prejudice and discrimination," she said. "We are not closing the door to legislation.

"From the limited evidence of class prejudice already available we believe that there is much to be gained through a programme of education and that is something we will get on with immediately."

She said the Equality and Human Rights Commission was also going to look into the issue and report later this year.

Rebels voting in favour of the amendment included 22 Liberal Democrat peers and 9 Conservatives.

Former party leaders Conservative Lord Howard and Lib Dem Lord Steel rebelled, as did Baroness Williams and former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay.

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