In an effort to update UK discrimination law, the Women and Equalities Committee of the UK Parliament (the Committee) has published its report following a yearlong inquiry into the legal aspects of enforcement across all protected characteristics and the effectiveness of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in fulfilling its enforcement role. Here we outline the report’s key recommendations and proposals.
Following the launch of an inquiry in July 2018 into the existing legislative framework and role of the EHRC, the Committee in its report of 30 July proposes radical changes to the way rights under the Equality Act 2010 (EA 2010) are enforced. The Committee sets out its concern that repeated breach of the EA 2010 occurs without challenge by regulators and governmental bodies, thereby creating a culture of normalisation and acceptance of discriminatory behaviour. While the Committee recognises that enforcement does occur to some extent, it concludes that the impact of such enforcement is insufficient to address systematic or routine discrimination experienced by victims. During the inquiry, complainants raised concerns with regard to enforcement of rights and protections in a number of areas, including pregnancy and maternity discrimination, transgender equality, disability, workplace dress codes, age discrimination, and sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Committee’s findings and proposed recommendations are underpinned by an important shift in culture, with the suggestion that in dealing with discrimination issues, the onus should lie with employers, public authorities, and service providers, rather than with individual employees as is currently the case. The EA 2010 sets out victims’ rights as regards to enforcement, including the legal avenues an individual must pursue to bring an equality claim before the courts, but the report suggests these are out of date and “no longer fit for purpose”. Notwithstanding its critique, the Committee recognises that individuals should retain the right to bring discrimination cases, but intends that the framework of protection and enforcement that sits behind those individual rights would be sufficient that such claims should rarely need to be made in practice.
The Committee’s key recommendations include:
While it is clear that the Committee’s latest recommendations are designed to discourage systematic breach of equality laws and encourage the EHRC to adopt a stricter approach to its enforcement role, the report provides limited practical guidance for employers. We expect the government’s response will set out with more specificity what will be required of the EHRC and employers going forward. From a practical perspective, and in order to mitigate risk, it is prudent for employers, public authorities, and service providers to ensure they have robust internal policies and procedures are in place to address equality concerns raised by employees, and that such concerns are acted on promptly and thoroughly.
It remains to be seen whether the EHRC is able to “overcome its timidity”, as the report claims, to use its unique powers and limited resources for “maximum impact”. There is very clearly a resourcing issue, which is likely to mean that for the time being, the EHRC will allocate its resources towards tackling the most strategically important cases and issues.
We will continue to provide updates on any new proposals in due course.
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