2016 has been a tumultuous year that will affect our country for decades to come. The UK Government is currently considering how to negotiate our exit from Europe and in the course of those discussions it will need to consider the impact of Brexit on equality law and whether existing protections will be retained or enhanced. This process will inevitably generate a great deal of uncertainty and makes achieving our vision of creating a fairer society a much harder task.
These are therefore difficult times for us all but especially for the most disadvantaged people in our society. The Commission must be a robust defender of all people and a strong enforcer of our rights when they are threatened. We intend to play a major part in the Brexit conversation and will work hard to ensure that there is no reduction in our rights. All our main political parties have put equality at the heart of their agendas for the next five years so the time is right to work with them to make Britain as fair a society as possible.
In 2016 the surge in post-Brexit hate crime has been of particular concern to the Commission and shows a rift in communities which we cannot ignore. Business also has a part to play in recognising and reporting hate crime and ensuring that vulnerable employees receive appropriate support. Our joint campaign, supported by organisations including the TUC, FSB and CBI, provides advice on employees’ rights at, and outside, work and gives important information about where people can go for help, including how to report race hate incidents.
Areas where progress has stalled have also been revealed by the Commission in our ‘Is Britain Fairer?’ report. This is the most comprehensive review of equality and human rights across England, Scotland and Wales, and shows that disabled people still face daily challenges. Many are ‘locked out’ of full participation in society due to ongoing barriers in the provision of housing, transport, leisure facilities, education and workplaces. There are also more disabled people living in poverty than non-disabled people. We must develop a landscape where business and employers value the talents of disabled people, and where society recognises the social and economic value of delivering accessible and inclusive services.
In addition to our work to address gender equality, next year I look forward to bringing different groups together to influence and support governments in our shared aim of achieving race equality. Black and Asian people are more likely to report having been stopped and searched by the police compared with White people. The number of Muslims who feel unsafe has also increased.
Gender equality is another continuing challenge. There is a persistent pay gap of 9.4% for full-time female employees and women are still over-represented in lower paid sectors and under-represented in decision-making positions.
It is, however, encouraging that Westminster is keen to introduce gender pay gap reporting in England, a move first taken by Scotland and Wales and one which we know will be hugely important to employers in the run up to April 2017. We are also calling on businesses to be more open, fair and transparent when recruiting senior executives in order to tackle an alarming disparity in diversity on the boards of the largest firms in Britain. It is unacceptable that the ‘old boys’ network’ still appears to be alive and well, with nearly a third of companies reporting heavy reliance on the personal contacts of current and recent board members to identify new candidates. Employers are paying the price by missing out on a huge amount of talent.
The Commission has an ambitious programme of work to tackle discrimination and promote equality of opportunity but we cannot achieve all of these objectives on our own. We all have a fundamental role to play in making Britain a better country for everyone. Now more than ever it is really important for us all to come together and play our part.
By Louisa Kane
The Equality and Human Rights Commission