Her leaked letter urges Hindus to submit evidence to help get legislation scrapped
Landmark legislation to ban caste discrimination in Britain is being deliberately scuppered by the Conservative equalities ministers in charge of getting it on the statue book, a leaked document indicates.
Discrimination on the basis of caste was outlawed in April as part of the Equality Act, after Business Secretary Vince Cable secured a last-minute amendment. The Act was supposed to mean the estimated 400,000 Dalits – so-called untouchables – who live in the UK would have legal protection from discrimination by other Hindus.
But in a letter to Hindu groups opposed to the legislation shown to The Independent, equalities minister Helen Grant says a safeguard has been introduced so the caste legislation can be removed from the statute book if reviews show it is not appropriate. She urges the groups to submit evidence against the law to an ongoing consultation “as we remain convinced” legislation is unnecessary.
Politicians and equality campaigners say the letter appears to be a fishing exercise, designed to gather support for the view that the new legislation is not needed. They also believe it shows that she has “prejudged” the consultation.
In a letter to the Alliance of Hindu Organisations dated 9 May, Mrs Grant says: “I made no secret at our meeting – and nor do I now – of my disappointment that it has been necessary for the Government to concede to making an order to include caste as an element of race in the Equality Act 2010.
“We remain concerned that there is insufficient evidence of caste-based discrimination to require specific legislation. We also have concerns that incorporating caste into domestic law – even in the context of anti-discrimination – may send out the wrong signal that caste is somehow becoming a permanent feature of British society.”
The letter outlines ways the law could be watered down and eventually scrapped: “Because, as I have said, we do not believe or accept that caste and caste division should have any long-term future in Britain – we have introduced an additional safeguard into the Act. This is the ability to carry out reviews of caste legislation to see whether it remains appropriate. If it does not, we have the option of removing it from the statute book.”
The issue of caste discrimination divided the Coalition, with Liberal Democrats supporting the addition to the legislation and Conservatives opposed. Liberal Democrat Lord Avebury said: “It’s entirely improper that the minister who’s supposed to be implementing the legislation – and initiating the consultation – is making it clear she’s opposed to the whole process.”
Meena Varma, director of the Dalit Solidarity Network UK, said: “Until this legislation is passed, the thousands of Dalits who say they are discriminated against will have no recourse to justice. Grant’s tactic seems to be to kick the whole thing into the long grass until five years have passed and the Government can scrap the legislation.”
A Government spokeswoman said: “Parliament has said that legislation needs to be passed to make caste discrimination unlawful. We are not just committed to the eradication of any sense of caste discrimination, but to ensuring that caste itself does not become a permanent feature of British society. To prevent this from happening, we have included a measure that will allow for the new caste protections to be reviewed after five years, to see whether they remain appropriate and necessary.”
Case study: Solicitors accused of victimisation
Vijay Begraj, a British-born Hindu from the Dalit caste, is still waiting for a full hearing for his case of caste discrimination; it began in February but collapsed after the judge was handed information by the police which might prejudice the case.
Mr Begraj says he and his wife Amardeep faced caste-based discrimination, humiliation, victimisation and harassment because of their relationship. His wife is of a higher caste, as are the people who run Heer Manak, the Coventry solicitors where they both worked. He also gave evidence that he had been assaulted by relatives of the firm’s partners and called derogatory names relating to his caste.
The firm told The Independent they would not comment, but have described the claims as “ludicrous” and “outrageous”. Mr Begraj said: “Hindu groups say there’s no issue of caste discrimination in Britain but it’s nonsense.”