Thursday, 4 August 2011

Festival cuts go ahead amidst confusion over equalities legislation

There appeared to be some confusion from Labour councillors members last night when discussing the cuts in funding of faith events at Scrutiny Committee.  At first Cllr Lesley Jones said it had been a financial decision  and that the Equalities Act, previously cited as the reason for stopping funding of religious festivals, did not require the cessation of funding. The required Equalities Impact Assessment had been done after the initial report and further additional responsibilities had been published in April of this year. She said that some respondents in the Consultation had  said the festival grants were divisive.Under questioning she later said that both the equalities legislation and financial issues were prime factors in making the decision. Cllr Powney said that this was an Act of Parliament and not a matter of choice. He said that the Council could not decide to ignore it because of what people said during consultation: "Someone will need to explain why funding different religious groups at different rates is not discriminatory."

Addressing the public gallery, overwhelmingly consisting of Hindus concerned about the ending of the Navratri grant, Cllr Helga Gladbaum  reminded them of the support given by Brent Council when East African Asians fled Kenya and Uganda and came to settle in Brent. She said that the Council had funded a highly qualified Language Team that had helped children as they settled into Brent schools and the outcome was that our schools are now full of highly achieving children. She told them that times had changed and the Council could no longer afford the Navratri grants: "You are a proud people and are well able to organise events without holding out your hands for money. The money is needed for the elderly and for disabled children."

Liberal Democrat leader, Paul Lorber, who had called in the Executive decision, said that all Brent councillors were aware of the kind of comments they got on these issues and they shouldn't take these few comments into account while ignoring the wider number supporting the festivals. The negative comments were from an underlying 'element' that all councillors know about 'and we wouldn't tolerate racist comments'. He asked about the wider implications of the legislation for the work of Brent Council and whether any other areas were 'at risk' from the legislation. He gave the example of Stonebridge councillors who had financed Jamaica Day from ward working funds and Black History Month.

The Borough Solicitor, Fiona Edden, said that the Council had to pay 'due regard' regard to the legislation and the impact of decisions on 'protected groups' (1) . in consultation some groups had the perception that they were not being provided for. She said that if looked at historically this could be claimed to be the case. She said that the legislation (2)  was new and case law on it was still being developed and the law interpreted. It was clear that the libraries case was casting a long shadow over her comments.

Cllr Jones said that the fact that Navratri gets far more money than other, more modestly funded groups, could be seen as divisive. It was nobody's fault but a problem that had developed over the years. She defended spending on a team to promote corporate events, and extolled the virtues of one massive community 'Brent Celebrates' event. (3)

A speaker from the Hindu Council had earlier told the Committee that Brent was renowned all over London for its Navratri celebrations which was the biggest and best in the UK with thousands attending from the different communities. He said that cessation of funding would cause a loss of respect and goodwill and end the positive community engagement involved. He said the the Hindu Council would like to work with the Council on how to deal with the equalities legislation.

Lorber's motion asking the Executive to look again at their decision and its impact on a large section of the community. He called for the money being used for a special Events Unit to be distributed instead to community groups in line with the equalities legislation. He said that such community groups would be better at putting on events than the Council. His motion was lost.

1. Protected  characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation.
2. Extract from the Equality and Human Rights Commission website:

With major reductions in public spending, organisations in Great Britain are being required to make difficult financial decisions. The equality duty requires public authorities to demonstrate that they are making financial decisions in a fair, transparent and accountable way, considering the needs and the rights of different members of their community. This is achieved through assessing the impact that changes to policies and practices could have on different protected groups.
The duty does not prevent public authorities from making difficult decisions such as reorganisations and relocations, redundancies, and service reductions, nor does it stop public authorities from making decisions which may impact on one group more than another group.
Assessing the impact on equality of proposed changes to policies, procedures and practices is not just something the law requires, it is a positive opportunity for public authorities to ensure they make better decisions based on robust evidence. The assessment does not necessarily have to take the form of a document called an Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) but you can choose to do so if it is helpful. It will help you to demonstrate compliance if you:
  • Ensure you have a written record of the equality considerations you have taken into account
  • Ensure that your decision-making includes a consideration of the actions that would help to avoid or mitigate any negative impacts on particular protected groups.
  • make your decisions based on evidence
  • make your decision-making process more transparent
The equality duty is a legal obligation which should remain a top priority for public authorities, even in times of economic difficulty. Failure to meet the equality duty may result in public authorities being exposed to costly, time-consuming and reputation-damaging legal challenges.
3. Such events can be fraught with difficulty as it is often difficult to untangle cultural and religious strands and there is a danger of the format not respecting aspects of some cultures. It is probably an urban myth but at the extreme end is the story of the Japanese store that celebrated Christmas with a huge model of Santa on a cross. I worked for a primary headteacher a long while ago who was determined to have a 'multicultural Christmas' and was miffed when, at the height of the cultural revolution, the Chinese Embassy gave a shirty reply to her request for information on how the Chinese celebrated Christ's birth!

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