Blog: Ten years of the Equality Act and still fighting

UNISON disabled and LGBT+ activist Louise Ashworth looks back at 10 years of the Equality Act

This October is the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act in Great Britain, and COVID-19 has shown why it is still so needed.

As a UNISON activist in a voluntary sector branch, I rely on the Equality Act when representing members – including disabled members discriminated against and facing dismissal because of sickness levels, lack of disability leave or reasonable adjustments.

I have also used it to prevent discrimination happening in the first place, working with employers to introduce accessibility passports for disabled workers.

The Equality Act was a fantastic achievement. Years of trade union campaigning and a Labour government won us a single law covering all equality strands, including disabled and LGBT+ women like me.

But the act hasn’t had an easy 10 years. It originally included a socio-economic duty to stop discrimination against poorer and working-class people, but this was never made law.

COVID-19 has shown that socio-economic discrimination is still a massive problem in the UK. The A’ level and GCSE fiasco in the summer saw poorer youngsters being marked down compared to those in private schools – but the Equality Act doesn’t cover this.

In 2013, the Tory-led coalition government went to war on the Equality Act as part of their ‘red tape challenge’. They removed the protection from being harassed by clients, contractors and members of the public, and they deleted the right to claim discrimination on more than one grounds – for example, as both a woman and a disabled person.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was also stripped of funding and left without capacity to carry out enforcement.

One of the key aims of the Equality Act was to prevent discrimination happening in the first place, rather than just picking up the pieces afterwards.

It requires public bodies to give “due regard” to the need to avoid discrimination and promote equality of opportunity for all protected groups. This is called the public sector equality duty. One way to stick to the duty is to do an equality impact assessment to check if particular groups of people are being unfairly hit by decisions or policies.

But the Tories ripped the heart out of the public sector equality duty. Since 2011, equality impact assessments have not been a legal requirement in England.

The government’s own impact assessment of it’s Coronavirus Act admits that it discriminates against Black, older and disabled people – but says this is justified because of the impact of coronavirus. And it seems to have got away with this! This proves the watered-down Equality Act is simply not strong enough to protect our human rights.

So what does UNISON want? We want the heart put back into the Equality Act.  Roll back all those Tory changes and bring back protections from being harassed by clients, contractors and members of the public. Allow discrimination claims cases on more than one grounds: I shouldn’t have to figure out if I was treated unfairly because I’m a woman or because I’m a lesbian – it could be both. And bring back protections for working-class people.

Employment tribunals should get back the power to make broader recommendations about employers so the same employers don’t keep discriminating again and again. And the equality duty in England must be strengthened.

But this will just bring us back to what Labour and the unions wanted in 2010. It’s now 2020. We need statutory facility time for equality reps, clearer rights including timescales for the implementation of reasonable adjustments, and improved protections for trans people.

With gender pay gap regulations and reporting under the specific equality duties relaxed due to COVID-19, we need more investment in the EHRC when we get through the pandemic. And we need action to tackle the disability and ethnicity pay gaps.

Black Lives Matter has shown us that there is a pressing urgency to address racism. The EHRC should have a beefed-up role in this.

So let’s celebrate 10 years of the Equality Act. But real equality is still a long way off. And UNISON won’t give up the fight until all of our members have an equal chance to succeed in their job and in their life.