Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

It is very widely accepted, and accepted by the Government, that the caste system has been imported

11 Jan 2010 : Column 334

into this country through the south Asian diaspora. The Government still query whether, although this is very widespread and distressing, it has actually impacted in the fields of employment, education and the provision of public goods and services, with which this Bill is concerned. That is what I want to address.

First, however, I should like to emphasise the educational effect of a law such as this. Sadly, racial abuse is still around in our society. However, if we think back 20 or 30 years ago, we can recall the extent of racial abuse and how, if not eliminated, it has at least been damped down by the Race Relations Act. That legislation has had a huge educational effect. Terms of abuse that were previously regarded as acceptable are now regarded as totally unacceptable. The evidence of children from dalit communities-I use that phrase; the old phrase, as we know, is "untouchable"-is that a very high percentage of them are the subject of terms of abuse. Some of their stories are very distressing indeed. What is even more surprising is the evidence from universities. Students from these communities find themselves ganged up against, not only abused but isolated and harassed in various ways. Including the term "caste" in the Bill in one way or another would have a huge educational effect.

Secondly, the point has been made to us so strongly that these affected communities do feel deeply discriminated against. That is what they feel and I think that the figures speak for themselves. The survey done by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance discovered that 45 per cent of people whom it contacted felt that they had either been treated in a negative way by their co-workers or had dismissive comments made about them because of their caste.

Noble Lords may ask, if they are feeling like this, why do they not go to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and seek a legal case? We put that to some of the dalit community leaders who had met a group of us previously and they pointed out that, for many of them, there is the fear of losing their job. One example given was of someone from Coventry who was badly discriminated against, and in order to draw attention to it they went on hunger strike. Thank goodness it was a sensitive management which saw that something was wrong and managed to ensure that it did not happen any more. However, it should not have to depend on someone going on hunger strike to draw attention to the fact that they are being discriminated against.

The second point that was made to us was that members of this community are the product of centuries of marginalisation. Many of them do not feel confident or powerful enough to go to a body such as the EHRC in order to bring a legal case. The third point made to us was that at the moment there is no clear remedy in the law. If there was a clear remedy in the law, they might have that much more confidence to draw these examples of discrimination to the attention of the proper authorities.

6.30 pm

The Government have said that they do not feel that there is enough evidence of discrimination in these spheres to include this provision in the Bill. They seem to have paid attention to their own report, to

11 Jan 2010 : Column 335

which there were only 19 replies gathered over only two weeks. Apparently that is one of the main reasons why they did not include this in the Bill. However, the report Hidden Apartheid-Voice of the Community by the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance is the result of interviews with more than 300 people over a long period of time. The evidence of discrimination it brought forward simply reinforces the evidence brought forth by other dalit organisations over many years and is very distressing. The Government moved in relation to transgender people, who I suppose number 2,500, on the basis of the stories they had heard. I suggest to the Government that the mass of evidence of real, distressing discrimination now provided by the dalit organisations is far stronger than the evidence upon which they acted in the past.

I stress that I support what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said about the amendment in this group tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill. There is clearly an argument for including discrimination on the ground of descent in the Bill as an alternative to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, provided that the word "caste" is clearly mentioned as a major way in which discrimination on grounds of descent might operate. In one way or another, the word "caste" must be included.

This is a serious issue in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said that about 200,000 people are affected. The figure put to me is that it could be up to about 500,000. There is hidden apartheid here. We all know that internationally this is a vast and distressing problem. The international struggle against caste discrimination is of even larger proportions than the struggle against apartheid. I hope that the Government will be minded either to accept the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, or the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, provided that, if they accept that amendment, they make it clear that they will include the word "caste" one way or another.

The Earl of Sandwich: I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for his expert summary. I apologise that I was not present at Second Reading and realise that that gives me no excuse to go on at length. This raises an issue that is fundamental to the discussion we have had in the past two hours.

I have worked for years with organisations concerned with caste, such as Christian Aid and Anti-Slavery International. I know the dalit organisations that work alongside these outcaste organisations. I have recently become a patron of the Dalit Solidarity Network. I have lived in India and I am familiar with the facts there but, until recently, I had not appreciated the extent to which the caste system has been imported into this country. I have carefully read the Solicitor-General's reply in the summer to the Public Bill Committee, and I fully understand that there was insufficient evidence of discrimination from the earlier scoping survey. However, in that debate she said that,

At that time, the Government seemed to have set their face against this, which seems extraordinary.

11 Jan 2010 : Column 336

Since then, as my noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries pointed out and as was pointed out at Second Reading, the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, which represents 23 organisations, has published the report Hidden Apartheid. It contains new evidence of discrimination. My noble and right reverend friend has already given examples. The Minister knows that dalits form a very high proportion of Indians, both Hindu and Sikh, in this country, and they are still regarded as outcasts many years after they have left India. In other words, there are some who are outside the caste system altogether. There can be no doubt that members of such a group are, or may be, victims of discrimination. I do not think the Leader of the House gave a very satisfactory answer to my noble and right reverend friend at Second Reading when she said that much of the new evidence was still anecdotal. Some of it is, but what she said implies that most of it is not. Just now, she said that drawing on the available evidence is what is important in the Bill. She said that a research project had to be undertaken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on caste discrimination-the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned this-but nothing has happened since Second Reading as far as we can tell. We are told that the Government are in discussion with the commission, and we would like to know the position. More research will be needed, but the principle must be in the Bill first.

My noble friend Lord Ouseley said earlier that if there are inequalities in our society, we must be rid of them, and we must be careful who gives us the information. My noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, have already said that the Hindu bodies do not necessarily speak for the dalit community, but ACDA will certainly guide the government statisticians. I hope that the Minister does not underestimate the number of organisations involved in this campaign, many of which were demonstrating this morning.

Whatever the Ambedkar reforms have achieved in India and south Asia, we know that an ancient system of caste is not going to be abolished-thousands of campaigners are still working on that in India-but to find it transposed into British society is something else. Quite simply, it is morally wrong, and it cannot be allowed to happen if it is shown to lead to discrimination in our society.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: I shall speak to my amendment, Amendment 16, in speaking to Amendment 5, with which it has been grouped, because it has been referred to several times and it would probably be helpful to the Committee if I explain as briefly as I can how I see the position.

First, I do not need persuading that there is a transnational problem of caste discrimination that applies in this country as well as elsewhere. Anyone who doubts that should read not only the evidence we have but also evidence of what has happened in other countries. I believe that there is a problem and that it needs to be covered by a measure dealing with racial discrimination. Secondly, when the United Kingdom drafted the race relations legislation, we had regard to the definition in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. That is where

11 Jan 2010 : Column 337

the phrase, "colour, race, or ethnic or national origins" comes from. Later, nationality was added. The drafters did not include the word "descent", but it was perfectly plain that your ethnic descent was included within the concept of ethnicity because the concept of ethnicity is about your birthright, where you have come from and who your parents and grandparents were. If you like, the Hitler definition of a Jew is a classic example. It was not about belief but where you came from, what your origins were and what your descent was. Jewish descent is a very common example.

I am wholly agnostic about whether the right way of tackling the problem would be by inserting the word "caste" or the word "descent". I am gratified that the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated in its brief that it thought that the more satisfactory approach was "descent" rather than "caste" for the reasons that it gave. This is not a competition between two different kinds of amendment.

In case law, many years ago, when Lord Slynn of Hadley, then Sir Gordon Slynn, was president of the Employment Appeal Tribunal, he explained, in a case called Seide v Gillette, why Jews were part of an ethnic group because of their descent. The same is true of the House of Lords Mandla v Lee case when the Law Lords were dealing not only with Sikhs as an ethnic group but with Jews. It came to a head in the Jewish Free School case, not just in the Court of Appeal, to which my noble friend referred, but also in the Supreme Court. The puzzle in that case was whether the admissions policy of the school was racial or religious, given that the religious test used included a matrilineal test as to whether a person had a Jewish mother and grandmother, as certified by the office of the Chief Rabbi. The Supreme Court looked at the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the fact that caste was meant to be covered in the word "descent". It did not have to deal with that in that case, but it decided that Jews were a group who could be defined by their ethnic descent as well as by their religious belief, which is not surprising. That is the conclusion to which they almost all came.

In the Minister's reply, as my noble friend Lord Avebury and others have emphasised, it will be important to hear the Government's understanding of whether and to what extent discrimination because a person does not belong to a particular caste or belongs to the wrong caste is capable of falling within the concept of race as it stands. Am I not right in saying that if there were to be litigation about this, the correct approach for the English courts to take would necessarily be to have regard, as they did in the Jewish Free School case, to the definition in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination? They would do so because we are bound by that convention and by an obligation to give effect in domestic law to the definition in the convention. If I am right in saying, as I think I am, that our courts would do their best to make sure that our statute law fitted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination-the international obligation in interpreting any ambiguity or doubt about the definition-in doing so would the Government not look at the word "descent" and make sure that whatever the Bill now says "descent" is included if it makes any difference? I believe that they would.

11 Jan 2010 : Column 338

If those two steps are correct, the third step is why not make it clear in the Bill, either by including the word "caste" or the word "descent" so that we do not have to have litigation up to the Supreme Court to decide a fairly obvious question. It is very important that the Minister's reply should be on the record and have regard to the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Pepper v Hart, with all its imperfections, at least leads to the opportunity for the Minister to make a Pepper v Hart statement as to the Government's understanding of whether caste and descent are already included. If we get a clear reply to that, does that need to be embodied in statutory language? Before reaching a decision on that, it is very important to have on the record the Minister's reply on whether and to what extent the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination covers caste and descent-the answer is obviously yes-to what extent it binds us-the answer is that it does-and to what extent must it be taken into account in interpreting our law-the answer is that it must. Surely, if what I have said is right, there should be no problem in accepting either the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Avebury or my amendment.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: Does descent include factors other than caste?

Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Yes, indeed it does. The Jewish example is very good. Jews are a classic example of a group defined by religion and ethnicity. Their ethnicity includes their ethnic origins, which includes their descent. Descent is simply another way of expressing the same thing.

6.45 pm

Baroness Flather: My Lords, having made a speech on this subject at Second Reading, I should like to add my voice on this issue. I am possibly the only speaker who has seen other people experience caste discrimination, although I have not experienced it personally. Many years ago, I taught in a secondary school where a number of boys, according to other boys, came from lower castes and they were bullied and mistreated. I cannot believe that all of a sudden these things have gone away. It is very sad to think that, while the Solicitor-General in the other place said that the Government were going to ask for more information and research and the noble Baroness the Leader of the House said that the Government were going to speak to the Commission on Human Rights, they have not done so. Even if they had, there would not have been time for a proper research project. If the worst comes to the worst, at least we should have the option to bring this issue back under a further provision. This will be the last chance to put things right because I do not think that we will see another equality Bill like this in the near future. It is enormous and covers more things than we can imagine, but it does not cover caste.

I should like to share with noble Lords something which will bring home the fact that all the information gathered by the Government has been gathered from the wrong sources. Last Friday, the National Hindu

11 Jan 2010 : Column 339

Students Forum, which is related to the Hindu Forum, wrote an article in Asian Voice. It makes accusations against all organisations working for dalits, scheduled castes or lower castes, whatever we may call them-the fact is that they are people who are considered not to be equal by other Hindus. It states that all these organisations are set on attacking Hinduism and that their whole purpose is to attack the Hindu Forum and the Hindu Council. This is a students' forum and we need to worry about this issue if the young are thinking like that.

The organisation says that this is not an issue in this country. But I should like to ask in a letter how many non-caste Hindus-a word commonly used by upper-caste Hindus-does it have as members of its organisation? If it calls itself Hindu, all Hindus of whatever caste should be able to belong. I am sure that the answer will be none. I have seen boys bullied and I have heard of many cases where people have been bullied at work. It would be a great sadness to allow this Bill to go through without making provision for caste. Unfortunately, as in India, the problem is not going away. In India, you are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of caste, but discrimination is still there. There are quota systems in education and jobs so that people from lower castes can move up the ladder. They are there because there is accepted discrimination and, unfortunately, people have brought that with them here. We would be very remiss if we did not do something for them.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I add my voice in strong support of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Both personally and through the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I think it is very important that we look at descent, which is broader and would cover caste, and thus kill two birds with one stone. Through the commission I was marginally involved in the case of the Jewish Free School, so it is important that descent is part of the legislation. I hope that the Government will consider it seriously.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, it is important that a voice from these Benches should be heard in support of this amendment. There was a lot of talk in the previous debate about equality of opportunity. We are talking here about groups of people who, because of their birth, have absolutely no possibility of any equality of opportunity at all, and no hope of getting any sort of education or job if they ever complete their education. We have been given a great deal of background information by a number of noble Lords-the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and of course the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. All this is incredibly important and comes from people who know what they are talking about. The information is clearly available and I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be inclined to say, this time around, that the Government will give serious consideration to what has been said in this debate with a view to coming back on Report, if need be, with perhaps their own wording in order that caste is at least put on to the face of the Bill. Surely it is appropriate that an Equality Bill should deal with this.

11 Jan 2010 : Column 340

Lord Mackay of Clashfern: My Lords, if the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is thought to be appropriate, it would be good to add the words "including caste" so that it is made absolutely plain to the people affected. They might have some difficulty in seeing through the word "descent" to caste, especially in view of what has been said about the alleged connection between caste and religion, which as I understand it is what is asserted in the article. It is therefore important that people should be clear on what the Bill is saying about this.

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, we have heard a full and interesting speech from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and very insightful comments from the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, on the issue of caste. It is vital that we consider these issues as this Bill makes its progress through your Lordships' House. Similar amendments were debated in another place, but the Minister's response was to leave the issue open so that, if further research proved it to be necessary, caste discrimination could be dealt with through measures in the other place.

The issue of caste discrimination is a complex one. Letters and briefings from the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, which I am sure many noble Lords will have received, state categorically that there is a serious and widespread problem which must be dealt with through this legislation. It maintains that if caste is not made a protected characteristic in the Bill, then caste discrimination will be allowed to flourish in the workplace, in institutions of education and in the provision of services. Can the Minister inform the House of what studies have been commissioned by the Government either from the Equality and Human Rights Commission or other bodies and, if such studies have been commissioned, what are their findings? In another place, the Minister informed the House that research would be needed to assess the most appropriate course of action, and I look forward to hearing about what has been done since those comments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, made an important point. The Government appear to have consulted the Hindu Forum of Britain and the Hindu Council UK. Consultation must go beyond discussions with umbrella organisations, and this is not the first time that I have raised the issue. It appears symptomatic of this Government's approach that they consult organisations that purport to represent groups, but invariably when you speak to the communities concerned they allege that the organisations do not represent them. That is possibly a lazy route to take in order to get to know the communities that make up the multi-ethnic Britain we have today.

This is a particularly important issue because the report entitled Hidden Apartheid-Voice of the Community-Caste and Caste Discrimination in the UK from the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance illustrates that there is a real and widespread problem, whereas that does not appear to come back from the Government's consultations. The survey shows that 71 per cent of respondents thought that they belonged to the dalit community, 58 per cent stated that they had been discriminated against because of their caste, and 45 per cent stated that they had been treated in a negative

11 Jan 2010 : Column 341

way by their co-workers or had had dismissive comments made to them on account of their caste. We should note that the survey was an online questionnaire conducted on only 300 people and nine focus groups between August and October last year, but nevertheless the figures seem to reveal a serious problem. Given that the reason for not including caste is that there was not enough evidence available to warrant it at the time, does the Minister agree that it is important that further research should be carried out, if it has not already been done? We hope to hear about the results of any research, and it is important that those results are given now because they will inform our discussions and make it possible to make this important decision.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page