We still trust the experts

Bright Blue took a major step forward in our Conservatism and human rights project last week as the Commission held its oral evidence session . The first session focused on gender discrimination with representatives from The Fawcett Society, PWC, Women’s Aid and Safe Lives. A consensus formed: despite improvements in gender equality, there is still a long way to go. Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid, pointed to evidence that suggesting that violence against women is increasing against the trend of overall violence decreasing. Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said there are still holes in our statutory law, with key sections from the Equality Act not having been enacted.

The second session, on race and religion, asked experts to discuss whether religious anti-discrimination laws need to be strengthened under the proposed new British Bill of Rights. Mohammed Amin from the Conservative Muslim Forum argued that everyone should be allowed to offend and be offended, but stated that the UK needed to learn from the US and have more reasonable consideration and accommodation for religious employees. Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, said the Jewish community is broadly comfortable with existing anti-discrimination laws, whilst Melanie Field, executive director for strategy and policy at the Equality & Human Rights Commission, wanted to see a constitutional equality guarantee following Brexit.

Baronness Deech, who chaired a House of Lords committee on the Equalities Act, Lord Low of Dalston from the RNIB and Kirsty McHugh from the Employment Related Services Association gave evidence next as to why more needs to be done to tackle the disability employment gap. Lord Low said the Government is wrong to be cutting disability benefits, while Baroness Deech said the approach should be to make sure that anyone who is having difficulty can access the same services as others.

Next the commission heard evidence about LGBT rights in the UK. Suki Sandhu, CEO of OUTstanding, a professional network for LGBT+ executives, said many companies think the job is done for LGBT people following the introduction of equal marriage, yet many LGBT people are still being harassed at work, whilst a large number of FTSE 100 companies do not even mention LGBT in their definition of diversity. Jane Fae from Trans Media Watch believed legislation could help reduce the importance placed on gender in our lives through less formality in documentation and fewer ‘tick box’ barriers. Ruth Hunt, CEO of Stonewall, argued that legislation is not a means to change attitudes but simply to allow LGBT people freedom to be themselves.

After lunch, representatives from Amnesty UK, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, The Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Muslim Council of Britain discussed freedom of religion in the UK. Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain spoke of rising islamophobia due in large part to international media narratives. He also called for an independent review of PREVENT and questioned why it is not in place in Northern Ireland, which experiences higher terrorist-related activity. Gillian Merron, chief executive of The Board of Deputies of British Jews, argued employers need to be better educated on the needs of religious employees such as observant Jews, so they can better accommodate them in the workplace.

The next session discussed preventing sexual violence against women abroad. Dr Jelke Boesten  stated there is no evidence that sexual violence in conflict has decreased, but that data on the issue is problematic. Dorcas Erskine of Action Aid praised global leadership from the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office under William Hague for initiatives to reduce sexual violence in conflict, but also said that we need a ‘mind bomb’ in male attitudes to women to actually stop it.

The Torture Prevention evidence session saw a range of experts voice their concerns over the consequences of the election of Donald Trump as US President. Ken Macdonald QC, from Reprieve, said that while there is a strong institutional culture in British intelligence services that torture is wrong, Britain’s values would be comprised if the Government failed to oppose Trump should he reintroduce measures such as waterboarding. Carla Ferstman, director of Redress, agreed, adding that the primary reason to refrain from torture is because “we are above that.”

In the penultimate evidence session, Martha Spurrier, director of Liberty spoke of her opposition to the new British Bill of Rights, saying parliament should not be in the business of re-branding legislation. Former Justice Minister Lord Faulks QC disagreed, arguing that, whilst the Human Rights Act is a brilliant piece of drafting, the idea that you cannot touch or revise it is wrong.

Finally, on a subject that has been a priority for Theresa May since her time as Home Secretary, experts from Unseen, Salvation Army and the Human Trafficking Foundation discussed what needed to be done to tackle modern slavery in the UK. Sonya Sceats from Freedom from Torture spoke of the need for the UK to strengthen its flagship Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and put more pressure on countries to adopt credible plans. Kate Garbers from Unseen also stressed the importance of modern slavery to be treated as a cross-departmental issue in government rather than in isolation.

Overall, the day was extremely useful, providing valuable evidence to assist in the Commission’s work. We are extremely grateful to our commissioners and all the participants for their contributions, video footage of which we intend to make available shortly.  Closing the session, Bright Blue Director Ryan Shorthouse outlined the next steps for the Commission, which will include policy formulation work and site visits, with a final report being published in 2017.

Saveena Mangat is a research assistant at Bright Blue