There’s a special tone of voice that people reserve for the words ‘Health and Safety.’ Dripping with a toxic cocktail of exasperation and ridicule, it’s the natural successor to ‘political correctness’ as a synonym for heavy-handed enemies of small business and good honest fun. If only those Health and Safety killjoys would leave us funsters alone, we would all be having a grand old economy-stimulating time being ill and endangered in peace.
And now the Health and Safety- bashing has moved on to more general regulation-bashing. David Cameron, seemingly positioning himself as the political wing of the Daily Mail, is on a mission to rid the country of a vast number of what he describes as “burdensome and unnecessary laws”, which, he tells us, “not only drive us mad, but frankly treat us all like idiots.” Hence his flagship Red Tape Challenge, which is gathering pace. A kind of legislative Big Brother, this project is a large-scale online consultation, in which every few weeks, the Government publishes all the regulations pertaining to a different area of the law, and we, the public get a chance to say which should be kept, and which scrapped. As Cameron tells us, the default presumption is that if the people don’t like a certain law, unless ministers can come up with a very good reason to keep it, it will go.
There are almost certainly a fair number of arcane and unnecessary regulations on the statute books, and a spring-clean once in a while can’t be a bad thing. The Challenge has been running for a month or so now, dealing with its first subject- Road Transport, and it has sparked many vigorous online debates about cycling regulations and MOT tests. But today the whole project takes a nasty turn, with the next subject up for discussion: Equality legislation.
Using the same disparaging tone used for the over-zealous rules about traffic cones, The Red Tape Challenge offers up the Equality Act of 2010 for public mauling. The Act, introduced after extensive consultation by the last government, defines and clarifies discrimination in all its various forms and offers protection against it to women and other minority groups in society. Less than a year after it became law, we are offered the choice of keeping it, amending it, or scrapping it all together.
It looks, at a first glance, like a fair choice. But it isn’t. The fact is, that before it has even begun, the debate has already been horribly rigged.
The problem generally with anti-regulation tub-thumping, whether from the mouth of the Prime Minister of the pages of the Daily Mail, is its tendency to exaggerate, and to whip us up into a state of righteous indignation about problems that don’t actually exist. And so with the Red Tape Challenge. When the project started, back in April, , Cameron fronted an introductory video about the Challenge and his views on regulation in general, presumably to get us in the mood for some bad-ass law slashing. There are 21,000 laws on our statute books which are “getting in the way of everything we need as a country” he tells us. The Government is going to drastically reduce that number, he promises, and helpfully gives us a couple of examples of the worst ones. “The rule that means that you need a criminal record check to take your neighbour’s child to football practice” and the “rules which force your small business or charity to employ a full time health and safety officer.” The only problem is, both of these so called ‘rules’ are figments of the Prime Minister’s imagination.
It’s a little odd that out of 21,000 of the pesky blighters, Cameron couldn’t come up with a single example of a real law that was actually damaging anything at all. But whether deliberate falsehoods or just a little confusion on the part of the PM, in peddling these myths, Cameron is setting up the debate on the premise that laws in general are tiresome and silly. Maybe not so damaging when we are discussing parking meters, but absolutely poisonous when we are discussing equality.
It has taken a long long time to gain some general recognition that objecting to sexism at work is not a sense of humour failure. That racism in the office is not just a bit of harmless fun. That the law should be on the side of those who suffer discrimination, rather than bigots and racists. It has been a slow and difficult process and the Equality Act of 2010 was a major step forward, making our country a better, more decent place to live. Lumping crucial anti-discrimination legislation in with cycle lane regulations and calling them both ‘burdensome red tape’ is deeply undermining to women and minority groups. Whatever the outcome, putting this law up for the chop whips the rug out from under those who were just starting to believe that freedom from discrimination was a right and not some kind of favour that could be withdrawn at any moment. Making Equality law the object of ridicule takes us back 50 years. Shame on you Cameron.
You can join the debate on Equality Legislation here: