The ‘E’ Word Must Go Back on the Legislative Agenda

The damage and division inequality inflicts upon our society was the driving theme of Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister:

If you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man.’

But the ‘e’ word is missing throughout the speech. Mrs May had said in 2010 that ‘equality’ had come to be seen as a ‘dirty word’, associated with ‘the worst forms of pointless political correctness and social engineering’. That was when, soon after it took office, the coalition government took socio-economic equality off the legislative agenda.

The previous government, in drafting the Equality Act 2010, included a socio-economic equality duty placed on those in power to consider the effects of policies and practices upon socio-economic inequality when ‘making strategic decisions such as deciding priorities and setting objectives’. This was intended to help address inequalities in such policy areas as education, health, housing and crime rates.

The Coalition government sadly chose not to implement it, and instead announced plans to focus on ‘fairness’ rather than equality. However, this has not borne fruit. While inequality in the UK was reducing in 2010, the indications are that it has not reduced since, instead looking likely to rise.

Thanks to recent fiscal policies, the UK was already, pre-referendum, on the verge of violating its human rights duties, under both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The UK is also under investigation for the possible violation of duties under the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. Research also shows that austerity has been highly punitive to women. It is difficult to imagine a way in which projected Brexterity would not further infringe human rights – making the UK a state which does not protect the welfare of women, children, persons with disabilities, or anyone on a low income and at risk of social exclusion.

A renewed socio-economic equality duty would be a significant, if procedural, measure touching on most of these areas. But other measures are possible – mandatory monitoring, target setting, making international obligations legally enforceable, and so on. The government must employ more meaningful legal tools than the Rorschach blotch of fairness – in which each person sees only what he considers to be fair for him. May was quite right when stating that ‘you can’t solve a problem as complex as inequality in one legal clause’. But we can’t solve it by doing nothing, either. We must acknowledge that disadvantage has not been tackled, it has been exacerbated; that we have not all been in it together, but divided in affluence and destitution; and that the UK has neglected its international legal obligations to protect, or even respect its citizens’ human rights. 

Better enforcement of our legal obligations and our children’s rights to a basic standard of living is needed at a domestic level – it should not be left to the UN to hold a mirror up and warn us we are losing the claim to be a civilised society.

Charlotte O’Brien, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of York

This is a guest blog and it does not necessarily represent the position or opinions of the Equality Trust. Further thoughts from Charlotte can be found on her Twitter handle @CR_OBrien.