Equality enforcement is 'timid' and 'not fit for purpose'
MPs today call for a fundamental shift in how equality laws are enforced, saying the current approach "dates back to the 1960s" and is not fit for purpose.
In its report, Enforcing the Equality Act 2010: the law and the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the Women and Equalities Committee said the current approach, which relies on the individual to initiate legal action, is outdated.
The MPs' year-long inquiry, which described the EHRC as "timid", recommends 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 says the system of enforcement should ensure that this is only rarely needed.
Committee chair Maria Miller said: "In our first four years, in inquiry after inquiry the Women and Equalities Committee has heard abundant evidence of the destructive impact discrimination has on people's lives, as well as the heavy cost that puts on society and public services.
"One thing is absolutely clear: the burden of enforcement must shift away from the individual. We need a fundamental shift in approach, and our report shows how to do it."
The committee questioned the effectiveness of the EHRC. It said that inquiries into 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 main recommendations of the report 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
- The EHRC must refocus its work and be bolder in using its unique enforcement powers.
Miller added: "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."
A fortnight ago, the then business secretary Greg Clark announced plans for a new a single labour market enforcement body. The committee recommends that the government's labour market enforcement director, the post that RSA chief executive and author of the review into modern working practices Matthew Taylor begins this week, should play a fundamental role, alongside the proposed new enforcement body.
If such bodies acted consistently on their obligations, then the EHRC could become the strategic enforcer that it should be. The report criticised the EHRC's slow response to the inequalities widely reported at the BBC.
"We asked the EHRC why it had taken over a year from their first interest in the area and nearly two years since evidence was in the public domain to finally decide to use their formal enforcement powers against the BBC," reads the report.
"The response we received reflected the 'timidity' and 'lack of organisational confidence' referred to previously by other witnesses and shortcomings in its own policies. This can be seen in the way the BBC succeeded in delaying the EHRCs investigation for 18 months, despite significant evidence already being in the public domain."
Miller said: "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."
An EHRC spokesperson responded: "We are a confident and robust defender of people's rights and have had an impact on some of society's most pressing issues, such as tackling sexual harassment and pregnancy and maternity discrimination. We have doubled the amount of legal cases we have taken in the last few years, helped more individuals and started a number of high-profile investigations.
"Taking high-profile cases, and our investigations into equal pay at the BBC and antisemitism in the Labour Party, show that we will use our powers without fear or favour to tackle injustices in our society. However, the best way to tackle the root causes of inequality and secure a fairer Britain is by using a combination of our research and policy expertise and our unique legal powers to expose discrimination, ensure public bodies and business comply with their legal duties and hold them to account."