UK Politics

Caste discrimination to be outlawed by Equality Act

Caste protest, Parliament Square
Hundreds protested outside Parliament as MPs debated the issue

Caste discrimination is to be outlawed in the UK, Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced in what is a U-turn on previous government policy.

The House of Lords has voted twice for legal protection to be given to the estimated 400,000 Dalits - so-called untouchables - who live in the UK.

MPs overturned the first Lords vote, but after peers again backed the plan on Monday, there has been a rethink.

Mr Cable said caste would in future be treated as "an aspect of race".

Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said: "We are delighted that the government has accepted that discrimination against caste should enjoy the same statutory protection as all other forms of protected characteristics.

"This is a victory for the Lords and their emphasis on protecting human rights."

Campaigners had said legislation was needed because thousands of people suffered abuse and prejudice because they were considered low caste.

They said existing laws offered no protection and said caste divided society unfairly, with those at the bottom expected to do dirty, poorly paid work while also being expected to - and forced to - look up to and respect higher castes.

Those arguing for action said such discrimination was outlawed in India and should be banned in Britain too.

In the House of Commons debate earlier this month the government acknowledged the existence of caste discrimination in Britain.

But equalities minister Jo Swinson told MPs: "This is an issue that is contained in the Hindu and Sikh communities. That's why we are working with those communities to address these problems."

She warned of concern that legislation could increase stigma rather than ease the problem and said that was why the government favoured tackling caste prejudice through an education programme instead.

During the debate many MPs backed the protestors.

Conservative MP Richard Fuller said: "This is a straightforward issue, caste discrimination in the work place is wrong and the people who suffer from it deserve legal protection. That's it. Beginning and end."

Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said that caste discrimination was "completely unacceptable".

The government has asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to examine the nature of caste prejudice and harassment, and consider what other action might be helpful.

The commission will publish its findings later in 2013.

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