Question last Monday:
Asked By Lord Harries of Pentregarth
To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their assessment of the finding of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research concerning the existence of caste-based discrimination in the United Kingdom.
Baroness Northover: My Lords, Ministers have been carefully considering the findings of this report on caste discrimination and the wide range of views expressed by interested parties. The Government's red tape challenge currently has a three-week spotlight on equalities. This presents people with a further opportunity to express their views on the possible need for caste legislation. We will announce our intentions once we have had sufficient opportunity to analyse the comments from this exercise.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth: I thank the Minister for her Answer. I appreciate that this report is being given very careful attention. In view of the fact that in August 2003 the UK's record on racial discrimination is to be examined by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, will the Government bring the report mentioned in the Question to the attention of that committee and will they respond to its recommendation in 2003 that caste-based discrimination be included in domestic legislation?
Baroness Northover: First, I commend the noble and right reverend Lord for all that he and my noble friend Lord Avebury have done to flag up this matter. Caste discrimination, like any other form of discrimination, should not be tolerated. He refers to the UN committee, which is reporting in August this year. We are aware that that is likely to flag up caste discrimination. At the moment, as I said, the spotlight is on equalities. The report is being given very serious attention. The national institute report states that evidence suggested that such discrimination was found, but it also makes clear that putting this conclusion beyond categorical doubt is difficult, which is why this report, the evidence around it and the submissions are receiving such attention at the moment.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, the Equalities Minister told me that the Government would be in a better position to announce their findings on whether to activate the section in the Equality Act on caste discrimination once they had assessed the views that
20 Jun 2011 : Column 1036
were expressed by stakeholders as part of the red tape challenge, which the noble Baroness has mentioned. As that exercise is about regulations, does my noble friend agree that stakeholders would not know that it was important for them to respond to the challenge until my honourable friend wrote to them? Many of them, including the Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, have not received the letter, so they will have only a week to respond before the period of consultation ends at the end of this month. Does my noble friend also agree that among the Dalit organisations, there is overwhelming support for caste to be made a protected characteristic under the Act? She will remember that from having heard them in the committee room upstairs when they were first consulted.
Baroness Northover: I thank my noble friend for that and for his dogged determination to ensure that anyone who is vulnerable will not be discriminated against. I can assure him that officials wrote to 22 caste stakeholders from the pro and anti-legislation lobbies on 10 June, advising them about the red tape challenge and inviting them to participate in the debate by expressing their views on the possible need for caste legislation. That will add to the submissions that are already in.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the disadvantages of not exercising the power given to them by the previous Parliament to include caste discrimination as part of race discrimination is that there might be litigation in this country that relies on, for example, the views of the CERD committee to which she has referred?
Baroness Northover: I hear what my noble friend Lord Lester says, and I should think that anyone hearing that will quake in their boots. If there is indeed caste discrimination, anyone meting that out needs to be wary. That is echoed in what my noble friend says.
Lord Soley: From her general discussions, does the Minister have any idea of the extent to which the relevant community leaders are aware of a problem of caste discrimination? If so, what do they say when asked about it?
Baroness Northover: My Lords, I think that they are aware of that. Given the debate on the Equality Act and all our discussions over the past few years, it would be a miracle if it had passed them by and they were not aware of it. In my view, all the communities seem to be well aware of the discussion over this. It seems to be generally accepted that caste is there. What is disputed is whether there are practices of discrimination. Whether it is declining or maintained is also disputed.
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: The red tape challenge is especially important for the Government. However, discrimination is discrimination, and I respectfully suggest that only anti-discrimination legislation would provide real redress for victims.
20 Jun 2011 : Column 1037
Baroness Northover: The noble Baroness makes a cogent point. One of the things that the report sought to identify was whether this could most appropriately be addressed by the legislation or whether it fell outside that. Some issues, such as bullying in schools, may well be dealt with by schools being much more alive to this problem. However, evidence is coming through on both sides about how legislation is required, because this kind of discrimination will not be caught by the current legislation. That is the key in this instance.
Lord Tebbit: My Lords, can my noble friend say when the problem first arose in this country?
Baroness Northover: Well, there is an interesting one. This is a question that neither the academics nor I can answer. One of the things that is very striking about the issue is how little academic work has yet been done on it. That academic work is increasing and improving, which I welcome.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are two major Hindu organisations in this country: the Hindu Forum and the Hindu Council? Will she ensure that those organisations are contacted with a view to seeing how the community in the first instance can look at the issues that have arisen and deal with them as part of the community initiative, and, if that does not work, to see what other actions are necessary?
Baroness Northover: I know that there is such dialogue, but I will take back his suggestion and urge that further action is taken.