Select Committee on European Union Ninth Report



21. The Government's response to the Commission's package of proposals must be seen in the context of their own evolving policies on equality and discrimination, which were set out in the equality policy statement of November 1999.[26] The statement makes a firm commitment to "eliminating unjustified discrimination", describing equality of opportunity as "not only inherently right, [but] … essential for Britain's future economic and social success." The methods of achieving this objective should "avoid unnecessary and burdensome regulation and will promote, encourage and support progress through non-legislative means". Legislation is, however, promised in some areas: the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill currently before Parliament will extend the Race Relations Act to a range of public functions; similar extension is promised for the SDA and DDA. There will be legislation to improve "the rights of disabled people". Non-legislative action aimed at "changing negative attitudes towards disability" is also promised. Other non-legislative measures mentioned include the existing code of practice on age discrimination; the Government propose, in conjunction with the Equal Opportunities Commission, "preparing a code of practice on discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation". On religious discrimination, the statement refers to research commissioned by the Government "to try to assess the current scale and nature of religious discrimination, and the extent to which it overlaps with racial discrimination, in mainland Britain".[27]

22. The Government's Explanatory Memoranda on the Commission proposals reflect these commitments. The Government broadly welcome the proposed Action Programme, but their response to the legislative proposals is more reserved. Explanatory Memoranda were submitted by the Department for Education and Employment (the framework Directive) and the Home Office (the race Directive). Both EMs state that the Government "supports the principles enshrined in Article 13 and welcomes the Commission's proposals as a step forward in combating discrimination across the EU". But they also suggest that the Government's "negotiating strategy" will have to "take account of an evolving domestic agenda". On race, the RRA and the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill between them cover most of the ground included in the Directive. However, the EM notes that some of the detail (notably the application of the principle of indirect discrimination and the extent to which Article 3 covers education) requires careful consideration. More serious reservations are expressed on the framework Directive. The Government point out the differences between the United Kingdom's approach to disability discrimination and the Commission; they argue that "in following a sex discrimination model, the directive creates overlaps and loopholes which would not be helpful to disabled people seeking to establish their rights". In particular, the application of the "occupational qualification" test to disability might undermine the principle of reasonable accommodation. On sexual orientation and age the Government note the existence or preparation of Codes of Practice, while on religion or belief they note that Jews and Sikhs are already covered by the RRA, and that further research is being undertaken (see above). A further reservation concerns the requirements that Member States ensure adequate dissemination of information within the workplace and that they promote social dialogue. These are described as "over prescriptive" and inconsistent with subsidiarity.

26   Given to the House of Lords in a Written Answer by the Baroness Jay of Paddington on 2 December 1999 (WA 49-51). Back

27   The research is being undertaken by the University of Derby: an interim report was published in January 2000. The qualification "mainland Britain" is added because religious discrimination is already prohibited in Northern Ireland by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Back

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