Someone called Meg Munn writes to the Times (11 May). It is nonsense, she says, to suggest that the government’s consultation into age barriers will result in young people booking Saga holidays. This, together with the reverse – pensioners booking Club 18-30 holidays – and a mass of other potential lunacies have been raised as possible side-effects of the forthcoming round of extension to the various anti-discrimination laws.
There is no intention, she says “to outlaw beneficial age-based concessions such as free TV licences or discounted fish and chips for pensioners”.
Ms Munn signs herself as “Women and Equalities Minister”, a fine example of New Labour’s cloth ear for snappy but condescending labels. A little investigation shows that there really is such a post and that Ms Munn is Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Women and Equality), Department for Communities and Local Government.
She has an MA in Social Work and was a social worker (of the pen-pushing variety rather than the hands-on type). I am sure she was an exception to the general rule about the aptitude of such people for handling real life. She also has a proper degree and speaks foreign languages and so may be a cut above the usual social-worker-turned-MP.
The useful TheyWorkForYou.com tells us a bit about Meg Munn. She is a Labour loyalist, voting strongly for the things dear to Blairs’s heart – repressive measures like ID cards and anti-terrorism laws, as well as for the Iraq war, foundation hospitals and student top-up fees. Her support for anti-libertarian measures like smoking and hunting bans is “moderate” which, on examination, derives from the fact that she failed to show up for most of the votes. These were free votes and not matters which Blair cared about too much, so no black marks – oops can’t say that, adverse marks – there. The usual reward for such loyalty is a little ministry to play with, and Meg got Women and Equality.
Why the cynicism about women, equality and age discrimination? Well, for a start, it has been illegal to discriminate on grounds of age since October 2006 but the government, in this as in other things, clearly thinks that the law is for other people. Don’t waste time sending your CV to a government department if you are over 50 and don’t expect to work after 65 if you already have a government job – not that you would want to, because your pension, unlike mine, is protected from Gordon Brown’s deceitful pension raid.
The real problem though is in Ms Munn’s assurance that any new anti-discrimination laws will only bite “where there is evidence of unjustified and harmful age discrimination taking place”. Leaving aside the subjective element – what exactly is “unjustified and harmful”? – the grapeshot nature of Labour’s legislation is bound to have implications not guessed at. There is too much legislation, and too little time to review it properly.
The problem is not just poor thinking and bad draftsmanship. Whatever the intentions of a bill’s proponents, the enforcement always falls into the hands of people who do not understand the intentions and who are too thick to exercise (or to be given) discretion. The copybook example is the use of the Terrorism Act to justify the forceful ejection of an aged Labour sympathiser, Walter Wolfgang, from a 1995 Labour conference meeting and the withdrawal of his pass by a dim policeman who cited Section 44 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act as his authority for confiscating Wolfgang’s conference pass.
Ms Munn may not intend her new bill to prevent private contracts being entered or declined on the basis that someone is too old or too young. She may not seek to forbid special offers for the Over-60s or pensioners’ bus trips. It may not enter her head that the consequences may include the withdrawal of a benefit because not everyone can get it (although that, of course, is part of the definition of socialism).
Let’s make some predictions abut the next round of anti-discrimination law:
The new discrimination legislation will have wider effects than its makers intend through a combination of government hurry, inadequate debate and bad draftsmanship
The government will use its majority to ram it through anyway, Gordon Brown being more interested in the principle and the victory than in the actual value or effect of the law.
It will be welcomed, flawed as it is, by the equalities and disabilities industry – all those otherwise-unemployable people who infest every corner of government, local government and the unions, and all the special-interest quangos and lobby groups whose living depends on blowing every trivial matter into an ishoo so that they can earn a living from it
It will miss the target it actually aims to hit whilst sweeping up scores of innocent activities.
It will cost a fortune to implement and most of the cost will fall on employers and businesses.
Meg Munn will by then have been moved to another inappropriately-named department – “Women and Disabilities” or “Women and Waste Collection” or something equally disparate and patronising.
Some really thick policeman, probably from North Wales Constabulary where they combine obsession and stupidity in equal measure, will bring charges against a small bus company over a pensioner day out or something similar.
The problem with “consultations”, Ms Munn, is that, post-Blair, no-one believes in them any more. It may sound as if we are mocking you when we talk of youths using your shiny new act to book Saga holidays. We are only too serious.