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The Equality Act - more needs to be done

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The Equality Act was implemented in 2010, but what actually is it? In truth, it’s a number of things at the same time.

It is an achievement.

Firstly, it was a huge step for equality.

It introduced the public sector equality duty which, if properly implemented, has the power to drive equality into the heart of decision making in government and across the public sector.

It also strengthened and expanded protection for a range of groups including around positive action and discrimination by association.

It is a missed opportunity.

Parts of the Act have never been brought into force in England, such as Section 1 of the Equality Act.

This set out a so called ‘socio-economic duty’ on public bodies, to ensure all government departments placed tackling inequality at the heart of their decision making.

This duty would not only have promoted the transparency and accountability of decision-makers, but would have also meant that failure to deliver against the duty could result in a legal challenge.

Another missed opportunity is around dual discrimination.

Everyone has an identity that is complex and varied. When the Act was introduced, it was intended that legal protections would mirror this, enabling people to bring a claim relating to more than one protected characteristic.

For example, if a Muslim woman had been discriminated against, she would have been able to bring a dual discrimination claim on the basis of both of these characteristics.

It’s just a piece of paper.

The Equality Act significantly expanded protections, but unless people can access justice, these protections are meaningless.

We know that 54,000 women are forced out of their jobs every year because of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, yet fewer than one percent of those are able to take their cases to an employment tribunal.

Unison won a massive victory in 2017 in overturning the governments tribunal fee system, which saw workers paying up to £1,200 to take employers who had discriminated against them to court.

But there are indications that the government wants to reintroduce these, pricing workers out of protection.

Rising levels of unemployment and insecure work can also act as barriers, with unscrupulous employers using these to silence workers. Lack of awareness of rights is also a real issue.

We need the Equality Act now more than ever.

The pandemic has sharpened and increased the impact of existing inequality.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began:

  • One in four pregnant women and new mums have experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work.
  • Pregnant women’s health and safety rights are being routinely disregarded.
  • Low-paid pregnant women are almost twice as likely as women on median to high incomes to have lost pay and/or been forced to stop work because of unaddressed health and safety concerns.
  • 71 per cent of new mums planning to return to work in the next three months are currently unable to find childcare to enable them to do so.

We risk losing decades of progress on gender equality as women are forced out of the labour market.

And as part of our ‘Dying on the Job’ report, which mapped experiences of BME workers during the pandemic, one in six BME workers said they had been discriminated against during the lockdown.

In one instance, a nurse raised concerns that she, as a Black woman, was being repeatedly selected to work on Covid-19 hot wards, when white workers were being given other, lower risk tasks.

She was told that as an agency worker, she had a simple choice: to do what she was told or lose all her shifts.

This is a story we heard again and again in different forms from BME workers.

It emphasises the point that for many, the Equality Act can protect their livelihood, while for others it is important in protecting their health and even their lives.

We must work to ensure that the Act is properly implemented, improved and enforced so that it provides the protection that is so desperately needed.

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