The Equality Act 2010 heralded a major change in discrimination legislation. Its aim was to harmonise anomalies in a number of acts that it replaced including the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. This page contains links and documents outlining the history, scope and consequences of the Equality Act and guidance for both employers and those in the workplace who believe they have been discriminated against and who wish to complain. The sub menu will also have links to relevant sites about each of the protected characteristics described by the Equality Act: race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, faith, age, gender reassignment, marriage & civil partnership and pregnancy & maternity.
The journey to the Equality Act 2010
The development of laws protecting groups of people from discrimination could be said to stretch back to the Representation of the People Act in 1928 giving voting rights to women, pressure for protection started to gain momentum in the 1960s but the issues that gave arise to this were largely a consequence of the aftermath of the second world war.
The rising post war immigrant population
When the war ended in 1945, the government quickly recognised that the reconstruction of the economy could only be met by a large influx of immigrant labour. Initially this was aimed at white Europeans and refugees from the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and 150,000 Polish arrived in Britain. However, it also attracted large numbers from the Caribbean and the newly partitioned countries of India and Pakistan. This was encouraged by the British Nationality Act of 1948 which allowed entry to Britain from Commonwealth citizens.
The first influx from the West Indies arrived in 1948 with nearly 500 West Indians journeying from Jamaica aboard the SS Windrush and many followed during the 1950s. In parallel, a large number of immigrants arrived from the Indian subcontinent and this continued into the 1960s. Many of these immigrants were skilled workers and tradespeople but racism meant that in many cases semi or unskilled employment was the only option open to them and many employers operated a colour bar. Although a small number of openly racist parties operated on the fringe of British politics, nevertheless there was a pervasive underlying attitude to immigration from a large number of people with a number of surveys conducted in the mid 1960s revealing that four out of five people felt that too many immigrants had been allowed into the country.
In 1958 a group of 300 to 400 ‘Teddy Boys’ inflamed by such movements as Sir Oswald Moseley and the White Defence League invaded the area of Notting Hill, an area of poor housing largely peopled by immigrants and serious rioting ensued that led to two weeks of disturbances.
Amongst the employers operating a colour bar was the Bristol Bus Company following pressure in the mid 50s from the local branch of the Transport and General Workers Union. But in 1963, a young social worker named Paul Stephenson organised a boycott in protest in conjunction with the local West Indian Community. Thousands of Bristol citizens boycotted the busses for 60 days. The campaign soon attracted national interest and the support of Tony Benn, the MP for Bristol East and Harold Wilson, Leader of the Labour Party, in opposition at the time.
The following year Stephenson achieved greater national fame when he was put on trial for refusing to leave a public house that refused to serve him. Many pubs and clubs at that tiem had a “no blacks, no Irish and no dogs” policy. The case was dismissed and so was the barman who refused to serve him.
In response to these and many other incidents, the Labour government bought out the first Race Relations Act in 1965 which made racial discrimination unlawful in public places. There were, however, many who felt that this law did not go far enough. It did not cover housing or employment and Conservative opponents forced a change from a proposed criminal offence of racial discrimination to a civil offence.
The Race Relations Board was set up in 1966 and in it’s first report called for the law to be extended to cover housing, employment and financial facilities. A second Race Relations Act was brought in during 1968 which extended the law making it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services on grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins. The bill was heavily criticised by the prominent Conservative politician, Enoch Powell in inflammatory speech that became know as the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. This caused a political storm and led to his dismissal from the shadow cabinet. However, a Gallup Poll at the end of April found that 74 per cent of people agreed with Powell. Prior to the speech Powell was the favourite to succeed Heath as Conservative leader.
The fight for equal pay and gender equality
In 1968 a group of female sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant went on unofficial strike. They walked out because their jobs were regraded as less skilled production jobs. The implication of this was that they would receive 15 per cent less pay than the rate received by men who still received the old grade of pay. Following the intervention of Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State for Employment in the Labour government, the strike ended after three weeks with an agreement that the women would receive 8 per cent less than the men.
However, inspired by this, women trade unionists founded the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights. They held a demonstration in Trafalgar Square for equal pay on 18 May 1969 with the upshot that the Equal Pay Act of 1970 was passed which aimed to make illegal the different treatment of men and women in both pay and conditions of employment. Although these events were the trigger for the act, it did pave the way for Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community as it bought us nearer Article 141 of the Treaty of Rome which established the principle of equal pay between men and women throughout Europe.
After Britain joined the European Community in 1973, European pressure combined with effective campaigning at home led to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 which broadened equality of the sexes in law in terms of employment, training, education, harassment and goods and services. It also established the Equal Opportunities Commission whose duties were to eliminate discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity on grounds of gender. The commission enabled people to bring cases to employment tribunals and the courts and was eventually subsumed into the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Race and gender legislation come together
Although the Immigration Act of 1971 was aimed at restricting immigration, there were over 50,000 arrivals on average per year. Of particular note was the expulsion by Idi Amin of the Ugandan Asian population in 1972. Many of them were citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies and 27,000 duly took refuge in the United Kingdom. A new Labour government came to power in 1974 and recognised that racial discrimination and disadvantage was increasingly visible. There were industrial disputes involving Asian workers and there was a growing second generation of the children of the first generation of immigrants.
The government therefore proposed to reform both the laws applying to racial discrimination and sex discrimination in parallel. Both the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Race Relations Act of 1976 were built on the same guiding principles. The acts both defined discrimination as direct, indirect and victimisation: direct discrimination was when someone was discriminated against because of their characteristic, indirect discrimination was when a requirement was put in place that could not be met because of that persons characteristic and victimisation safeguarded people exercising their rights under the legislation.
The rise of the disability rights movement
In the early 1970s the Union of the Physically Impaired against segregation (UPIAS) was formed after a letter was written to the guardian from Paul Hunt, who was a disabled resident of a Leonard Cheshire Home calling on disabled people in such institutions to form a group to put forward their views about their isolation on a national stage. UPIAS campaigned for full civil and human rights for disabled people. Increasingly, disabled people took to the streets in ever larger mass protests such as the 1990 and 1992 protests by the disabled people’s movement ‘Rights Not Charity’ against Telethon, an annual TV charity marathon run by ITV. 2000 protesters wore ‘Piss on Pity’ t-shirts and demanded an end to regarding the disabled as tragic and needy and instead ending discrimination. The programme never ran again.
In the 80s and early 90s there were 14 attempts to get a disability rights bill into law and all of them failed. Increasingly effective lobbying and campaigning was aided by the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the USA in 1991. That same year the British Council of Disabled People launched its campaign for an anti-discrimination law and published a major research report that highlighted comprehensive evidence supporting the case for such a bill. Until that report was published the government had not accepted that discrimination occurred. Forced to accept this, it was still not prepared to put a bill before parliament on the grounds that Britain would not be able to afford it. This spurred the disability movement to greater direct action.
The ‘Rights Now’ group was formed in 1992 and through effective mass protest, a high degree of media coverage and skilled lobbying forced the Conservative government into bringing forward the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. The act was considerably watered down from the demands of the disability movement as it had a limited definition of disability and excluded some mental health and learning disabilities. Other difficulties were that employers of under 20 people were exempt from the act and there was no enforcement mechanism within the bill.
Over the following years a number of amendments were introduced to the act to strengthen it such as an obligation on service providers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ when providing access to goods and services or premises. In 2003 the act was amended to comply with the EU employment directive.
The extension of gender and sexual orientation
The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 did not cover the estimated 5,000 people who identified as transsexual, nor did it cover discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Following an EU directive in 2000, the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 provided protection for discrimination in employment on grounds of sexual orientation and introduced protection for perception of sexual orientation. The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 gave transsexual people legal recognition of their appropriate acquired sex but required them to apply to a Gender Recognition Panel which would issue a Gender Recognition Certificate that would allow them to get a new birth certificate. However, applicants were expected to have lived as their acquired gender for a two year period prior to this. The emergence of this act was down to prior court rulings from the European Court of Human Rights. The Civil Partnership Act of 2004 created legal status for same sex couples but the Gender Recognition Act required married people to divorce in order to achieve a gender recognition certificate whilst still in an existing marriage as otherwise a new category of same sex marriages would have been created.
Race, ethnicity or religion?
Although the Race Relations Act of 1976 did not extend to religion, the Commission for Racial Equality, in it’s second review of the act in 1992, argued for it’s inclusion to be considered. Over the period, Britain had become progressively more diverse and multicultural with many groups identifying more with their faith rather then their ethnic background. This particularly applied to second and third generations of immigrant background. Previously minority religions such as Islam were growing as society as a whole was becoming more secular. Muslim, Hindu and Sikh organisations reported high levels of unfair treatment. The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) and (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 made discrimination in employment and vocational training on grounds of sexual orientation and religion or belief unlawful. These regulations were intended to Bring the United Kingdom into line with the terms of the European Communities Act 1972 and the EU Equal Treatment Directive which covered disability, religion or belief, sexual orientation and age. Race and sex discrimination had been covered in other directives.
Towards a common treatment of discrimination
The Employment Equality Regulations of 2003 only applied to employment so to bring religion and belief, sexual orientation and gender reassignment fully into existing laws an Equality Bill was introduced to Parliament in 2004/05. When the bill was introduced only religion and belief was initially included and sexual orientation was specifically excluded. Cynics at the time believed that this was deliberately done so as not to alienate homophobic religious voters. However, the general election of 2005 intervened. The Labour party promised to reintroduce the bill in its election manifesto and it subsequently did so following its successful re-election. Openly gay peer Lord Alli lobbied and succeeded in getting sexual orientation added to the new bill. The Equality Act 2006 protected race, gender, disability, religion or belief, gender reassignment and sexual orientation. The bill also created the Equality and Human Rights Commission which was a merger of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission. It also created a public sector duty to promote equality on grounds of gender for all bodies performing public functions.
The Equality Act 2010
As we can see from this journey through the history of anti-discrimination laws in the UK, there have been many acts and regulations along the way. The Labour Party commissioned the Discrimination Law Review in 2005 which, chaired by Trevor Phillips, reported in 2007. The Equality Act was intended to simplify the law by bringing together the existing anti-discrimination laws into one all encompassing act. The Equality Act replaced nine main pieces of legislation:
- the Equal Pay Act 1970
- the Sex Discrimination Act 1975
- the Race Relations Act 1976
- the Disability Discrimination Act 1995
- the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003
- the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003
- the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006
- the Equality Act 2006, Part 2
- the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007
The bill, drafted by Harriet Harman also placed a duty on public sector bodies to:
- Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act.
- Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
- Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
The implications of the act are explained in much more detail in the links below.