Opinion: Hot Issue - Should equal opps be a criterion for obtaining charitable status?

Gay-rights activist Peter Tatchell has urged the Home Office to make equal opps a condition of charitable status in the draft Charities Bill. The Home Office says the current law is sufficient.

YES - Louise Carlin, equalities programme manager, SCVO

Legislation is an essential, if not exclusive, driver of wider social change. The proposed creation of a Commission for Equality and Human Rights is recognition by the government itself of the power of statutory underpinning.

It is imperative that for equality and human rights to be properly promoted and protected, they must not be confined to specific legislation but overtly 'mainstreamed' across all areas of public policy and legislation.

Positive public duties should be placed on charities, as with many other organisations, to ensure effective observance of equal opportunities and human rights in line with the raft of duties which will exist under the new commission. Charities cannot assume they should be relieved of the expectations increasingly placed on public and private bodies simply by virtue of their value base, governing structure or user group.

The charity law reform process across the UK presents an excellent opportunity for the Government to send a strong message on equality and human rights and for charities to publicly demonstrate the principles and practices on which their reputations - and funding - is based.

NO - Abbie Rumbold, partner, Bates, Wells & Braithwaite

There already exists an impressive array of statutory protection for employees with regard to discrimination in the work place. These laws apply equally to all employers whether they operate in the public, private or voluntary sector; charities should not be singled out.

Why should charities be obliged to demonstrate they are equal opportunity employers while multinational private companies are not? And why involve the Charity Commission; it has experts in charity law, not employment.

To increase its role would be to allow the grey areas of "guidance" and "best practice" to seep into an already complicated and even confusing area of the law.

Discrimination and the provision of services is a different issue. There may be situations in which focusing on a particular community is a necessary part of a charity's mission. For example, a charity may be established to promote Afro-Caribbean culture in west London, or to promote the health of gay men in London. One of the most important aspects of the voluntary sector is its ability to target specific needs. To insist that charities become a jack-of-all-trades is to risk them being master of none.

NO - Pete McColin, director of human resources, Sense

Equal opportunities should be a cornerstone of every charity's work.

But to place a specific obligation on charities is a distraction from the real issue of ensuring that equal opportunities are enforced across all sectors - private, public and voluntary.

Many charities already lead the way in their policies and practices in this area. That's not to say that, as a sector, we shouldn't do more.

Clearly there are organisations that fall short, but the real challenge is to strengthen and extend anti-discrimination legislation and make sure it applies across the board.

For example, disability discrimination laws are less robust in some respects than laws on gender and race discrimination. Sense would like to see a legislative level playing field in place before the existing equality commissions are merged, to ensure that disabled people are protected on the same basis as other groups.

But the proposed Charities Bill is not the best vehicle for advancing equal opportunities. The risk is that by creating one rule for charities, you reinforce the idea that they should be held to a higher standard, and you let other organisations off the hook.

YES - Steve Winyard, head of public policy, the RNIB

We have waited 400 years for new charity legislation. Let's make sure we get it right so it properly reflects our multicultural and diverse society.

There is general acceptance that "public benefit" should be the basis of our new definition of charitable status. But it is hard to see how an organisation can act for the public benefit unless it has equal opportunities policies in place. This is not something of marginal importance. As the Prime Minister has noted in his foreword to this month's equalities White Paper: "Equality and human rights underpin our vision of a modern, fairer and more prosperous Britain. Discrimination simply has no place in our society."

The draft Charities Bill is published in the same month as the White Paper, and the two pieces of legislation should be mutually supportive.

It is clear that the proposed Commission for Equality and Human Rights will have a massively difficult job changing entrenched discriminatory attitudes and behaviour. If the charitable sector could be relied upon to deliver equal opportunities in its employment and service delivery activities, so much the better. Let's use the Charities Bill to ensure this happens.

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