Labour slams Tory equalities brief ‘overhaul’ as “gratuitous provocation”

Elliot Chappell
© Jess Hurd/Another Europe is Possible

Labour’s Marsha de Cordova has accused the Conservatives of “gratuitous provocation” after government minister Liz Truss declared that the debate over equalities should be “led by facts, not by fashion”.

Truss, who is both International Trade Secretary and minister for women and equalities, delivered a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies today that criticised ‘identity politics’ and unconscious bias training.

She told the think tank event: “To make our society more equal, we need the equality debate to be led by facts, not by fashion. Time and time again, we see politicians making their own evidence-free judgements.”

The minister claimed that the debate is too often “dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices, and by those who believe people are defined by their protected characteristic and not by their individual character”.

Commenting on the intervention by Truss this afternoon, Labour’s Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Marsha de Cordova joined trade unions and others in condemning the remarks from the equalities minister.

De Cordova said: “This is gratuitous provocation from a government that consistently refuses to face up to its responsibilities and the widening inequality it has caused.

“When Liz Truss dismisses ‘fashionable’ causes she actually dismisses the devastating impact of discrimination and unfairness in peoples’ day to day lives.

“It is laughable for the Conservatives to claim to care about class when they have frozen public sector pay, driven up poverty, and plan to cut Universal Credit and impose a council tax rise.”

Rishi Sunak announced a public sector pay freeze in his spending review last month, with NHS nurse and doctors exempt from the cap on wages, and that the national living wage would increase to £8.91 instead of the planned rise to £9.21.

De Cordova added: “This year has highlighted how important it is for people to come together. Instead of looking for new ways to divide communities and pining for an era of Thatcherite individualism, the Tories should focus on fixing the structural inequality that holds people back.”

Truss claimed that data based on protected characteristics set out under the Equalities Act is not fit for purpose and argued that debates on equality must be “rooted” in “real concerns people face”.

The nine protected characteristics defined in the legislation are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Truss said: “While it is true people in these groups suffer discrimination, the focus on protected characteristics has led to a narrowing of the equality debate that overlooks socio-economic status and geographic inequality.

“This means some issues – particularly those facing white working-class children – are neglected. This project will broaden the drive for equality.”

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady joined criticism of the comments, saying: “No matter who you are or where you are from, everyone should be able to get on in life. Liz Truss is presenting a false choice.

“Ministers must both tackle the barriers facing today’s diverse working class, and act to end the additional discrimination and disadvantage affecting Black and ethnic minority, women and disabled workers.

“They should start by banning the hated zero-hours contracts in their employment bill due in 2021. This would help end the insecurity that penalises BME workers and women in particular, and holds down living standards for all workers.”

O’Grady reiterated her call for the Tories to tackle insecure work in the employment bill due in 2021, introduce a legal duty on all public bodies to tackle class and income inequality and bring in reporting of BAME, class and disability pay gaps.

ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan told Truss to “get real” and described claims in her speech as “ridiculous”, declaring: “It is absolutely extraordinary that the minister for equalities is calling for less equality.

“It would be like the minister for sport calling for less sport, or the Secretary of State for Trade calling for less trade. Although we might, just be going there, too…

“What Liz Truss has haplessly called the “tools of the left” is an agenda promoted by thoughtful and sensible people of all political persuasions, and most political parties, to create a country in which everyone, regardless of the colour of their skin, or their gender, or their sexuality, their background, or their birth, has the opportunity to get on.

“That is what the equalities agenda is all about; giving everybody in Britain a chance to contribute to building a better Britain. It is, frankly, ridiculous for Liz Truss to talk about ‘fashion’ and ‘focus’. Get real.”

Runnymede Trust chief executive Halima Begum said: “Truss’s attempts to ‘overhaul’ the equalities work in the UK is nothing short of a whitewashing of British history and its relationship with race.”

The speech by the government minister followed the announcement on Wednesday that the report into racial inequality in the UK, unveiled earlier this year by the Prime Minister, will not be completed until 2021.

The commission on race and ethnic disparities, established in June in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, was due to report by the end of this year but has now requested a further two months.

Marsha de Cordova also criticised the Tories for their “indifference” to gender pay inequality earlier this year – and called for the government to “prevent this crisis from further cementing women’s economic inequality”.

The Government Equalities Office announced in March that it would not be taking action against employers who fail to submit their pay gap data due to the pandemic, effectively suspending the requirement for the year.

The Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary slammed the decision at the time as “negligent”, pointing out that coronavirus “thrives on inequality” and that such inequalities “amplify the impact of the pandemic”.

Labour highlighted last month that progress towards closing the gender pay gap, currently at 14.6% for UK workers, has slowed significantly over the past ten years under successive Conservative governments.

Government figures also show that more women have been on furlough during Covid than men, and the TUC has highlighted that the impact of the virus has been particularly acute for BAME women, who are likely to be in lower paid, insecure work.

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