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Equality law enforcement: change needed


Women and Equalities Committee, report, Equality Act 2010, enforcement, equality law, no longer fit for purpose, Equality and Human Rights Commission, EHRC “Our report sets out exactly what needs to be done.”

The Women and Equalities Committee has published its report ‘Enforcing the Equality Act: the law and the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission‘ after its year-long inquiry.

And has said the individual approach to enforcement of equality law is no longer fit for purpose.

The report argues against relying on the ‘individual takes action’ approach, dating back to the 60s and 70s, and recommends that this must be replaced by a new approach which provides a sustainable deterrent and tackles institutional and systemic discrimination.

While individuals must still have the right to challenge discrimination in the courts, the Committee said, the system of enforcement should ensure that this is only rarely needed: this will require a fundamental shift in the way that enforcement of the Equality Act is thought about and applied.

The Committee’s work in a range of areas has shown that individuals have difficulties enforcing their rights under the Act and has questioned the effectiveness of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Inquiries on pregnancy and maternity discrimination; transgender equality; disability and the built environment; workplace dress codes; older people and employment; and sexual harassment in the workplace all identified widespread problems with enforcement.

The report’s main recommendations are:

Develop a ‘critical mass’ of cases to inform employers and organisations about their legal duties and make adherence to existing equality law a priority for all organisations;

Move away from relying so heavily on the current model of using individual litigation to create precedents;

Make obligations on employers, public authorities, and service providers explicit and enforceable;

Ensure that all who have powers to change the way in which employers, public bodies and service providers operate use their powers to eliminate discrimination and to advance equality; and

The Equality and Human Rights Commission must refocus its work and be bolder in using its unique enforcement powers.

The Committee recommends that the government’s Labour Market Enforcement Director should play a fundamental role, alongside the proposed new single labour market enforcement body; if such bodies were to act consistently on their obligations, then the EHRC could become the strategic enforcer that it should be.

Finally, the report recommends that the government must also make this fundamental shift in the way that enforcement of the Equality Act is thought about and applied.

The Committee’s Chair, Maria Miller MP, said: “Employers and service providers are not afraid to discriminate, knowing that they are unlikely to be held to account.

“We need a critical mass of cases to build a culture where compliance with the Equality Act is the norm.

“The EHRC must overcome its timidity. It has unique powers, limited resources and must use them for maximum impact.

“It should make regulators, inspectorates and ombudsmen not only key partners in creating a critical mass of enforcement action but also key targets for enforcement action when those same regulators, inspectorates and ombudsmen fail to meet their own equality duties.”

And, Miller continued: “Above all, the government must act on its own obligations. It must embed compliance and enforcement of the Equality Act into its most significant strategies and action plans.

“That it has not yet done so in its recent efforts to improve the quality of work – where stopping discrimination is so clearly an essential precondition to any improvements – beggars belief.

“Our report sets out exactly what needs to be done, and we look forward to hearing how the government plans to act on this.”

To read the full report, click here.

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