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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Election issues: Equal Rights
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News disability affairs correspondent

Civil partnerships: Equal rights for gay couples
Like motherhood and apple pie, equality is something that most politicians say they are in favour of - after all there would be few votes in pledging to increase inequality. But what is New Labour's track record, and what could voters expect from other parties?

The government portrays the UK as a beacon of equality - it says we have some of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in Europe.


It's a process which began with legislation on racial equality, developed in the 1970s with gender equality rules and most recently started changing the way society addresses disability, sexuality and, most controversially, religion.

Along the way, the UK has adopted a large framework of international law, much of it drafted with UK involvement, including the European Convention on Human Rights.

Scotland: Not Devolved
Wales: Not Devolved
NI: Not Devolved
Devolved issues are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, or NI Assembly

Labour's 1997 return to government came with an extended rights agenda at the core of many of its policies.

Take maternity leave, for example. Labour wants to soon extend it to allow women to take up to nine months paid leave. They also want to allow mothers to transfer some of their entitlement to fathers. The other main parties are now also putting forward policies to improve maternity leave.

One of Labour's earliest equality moves was the minimum wage. It has helped to reduce the pay gap between men and women but with full time female workers earning on average 18% less than men, this remains a thorny issue.

Disability rights

Some of the most far reaching recent changes in equality law have come in the field of disability rights. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was enacted under the Conservatives, but most of its provisions have been introduced under Labour since it was designed to be implemented in stages.

And the Disability Rights Commission - the body that oversees the Act - was created by Mr Blair's administration.

Disabled people in Britain are now offered assistance with finding a job through the New Deal for Disabled People and another scheme, which has yet to be launched nationwide, called Pathways to Work.

And thanks to the DDA employers must make 'reasonable adjustments' to make jobs accessible to disabled people, including small businesses and the uniformed services - police, fire and prison.

Labour promised further measures to improve the rights of disabled people in its 2001 manifesto, and a new, 2005 Disability Discrimination Act reached the statute books just in time for the general election.

Hate crimes

The Race Relations Act was strengthened in 2000 as a response to the handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation. It now includes a positive duty on public bodies to promote race equality meaning bodies such as the police must prove they treat people equally, rather than simply say they will do it.

Equality: Part of Labour's 1997 agenda
The concept of hate crime has been developed. Judges can consider prejudice against someone because of their disability, sexuality or faith an aggravating factor in a crime.

One of the last measures to go through Parliament before the election should be a controversial new law that would make incitement to religious hatred a specific offence - something that faith groups, principally Muslims, have long called for.

The age of consent in homosexual relationships has now been equalised with heterosexual relationships at 16 while the government also repealed "Section 28" - the ban on the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities introduced by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Finally, the government introduced the Civil Partnership Act which later this year gives legal recognition to same-sex couples, creating rights which in principle are the same as those for married couples (although there are some doubts over pensions). Human Rights Act

Key document: New rights in British law
But perhaps the most important change introduced by Labour has been the 1998 Human Rights Act. The Act is quite a simple piece of law which embeds the European Convention on Human Rights into British law and sets new boundaries as to how public bodies can treat individuals.

Its scope is enormous: Not only does it have a say in how a school treats a child, recent events have shown it also has a say in how ministers deal with terrorism suspects. Some of the changes already mentioned may have been arguably forced on future governments by the impact of this act, had they not decided to make changes now.

But how the parties approach the Act has been interesting. The Conservatives have considerable reservations about its use, not least if it leads to the growth of a compensation culture and legal rulings beyond what the party sees as a sensible interpretation of rights.

The Liberal Democrats are fully supportive of it and it was in fact one of the party's peers, human rights QC Lord Lester, who devised much of the new law.

Indeed they want to go further and create a written constitution with a formal Bill of Rights.

But despite introducing the act, Labour has at times been publicly ambivalent about it - not least former home secretary David Blunkett who regarded High Court rulings against him on human rights grounds as meddling.

Single body

The law has however played a part in the thinking behind Labour's proposed single equality watchdog.

The argument for a single rights body, planned for 2007, is that it would be best placed to enforce duties and protect rights, rather than the current list of different watchdogs.

Although the bodies covering gender and disability are happy to be merged, the Commission for Racial Equality has been more reluctant. It is expected that the CRE would eventually join the new watchdog but probably after a further two years' delay.

The Conservatives have voiced concerns over the potential bureaucratic burden of the new body while the Liberal Democrats want its birth to coincide with a fundamental revision of the law into a single all-encompassing equality act.



Issues guide
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