Year in review: What EHRC achieved in 2019
EHRC activities last year ranged from work on freedom of speech, rights for disabled people, working to deliver a fairer justice system and ensuring equality and rights in education, writes EHRC Chair David Isaac.
Last year I said that the challenges of 2018 had surpassed all our expectations. Now 2019 is over, I think it’s safe to say it did not exactly go according to plan either!
Brexit and political uncertainty dominated both our national debate and focus. So as we ended the year with a new government, it’s clear that we will leave the EU. As I look back on what we achieved in 2019, I’m confident of one thing - that the work of the EHRC will be more important than ever in 2020.
Our activities last year ranged from work on freedom of speech, rights for disabled people, working to deliver a fairer justice system and ensuring equality and rights in education. This may have been one of our busiest years in our history.
Ensuring that everyone is able to reach their full potential through education
I passionately believe education is paramount to equip children to be citizens of the 21st century. It is essential in helping us to navigate the divisions that create what increasingly feels like a fragmented society. I believe that education has the power to establish a more cohesive society.
We must be able to respect the views of different communities but children also need to understand what the law requires of them in civic spaces and in the workplace.
This is why higher education is so important. After leaving school, universities are places where we further develop our identity and ideas. Students must feel safe and for this reason one of the important areas of our work last year involved an in-depth inquiry into racial harassment in universities.
Sadly, we found that 24% of ethnic minority students have experienced racial harassment on campus. Our evidence told us that universities needed a wake-up call to understand the scale of the problems they face.
The education sector has responded positively to our inquiry but it’s important to stress that there is no room for complacency as there is still much to do to eliminate the racial harassment of both students and staff.
The other area of our higher education work focused on Freedom of Speech on campus. This important topic goes right to the heart of our democracy; if ideologies cannot stand up to robust challenge they will never be properly tested.
That is why we worked closely with leading education organisations and students’ unions to publish our guidance on Freedom of Expression. For the first time ever we were able to set out - and with real examples - the legal rights and obligations to ensure free speech is possible at universities.
The guidance will empower institutions, students’ unions and individuals to stand up for free speech. The guidance has been well received and I’m confident will make it easier for debate to flourish now and in the future on campuses.
The legal system and access to justice
As a lawyer, I’m a firm believer that the justice system must work fairly for everyone. As a result, much of our work focused on addressing flaws in the legal system. We completed our inquiry on access to justice for victims of discrimination but also started another inquiry to determine whether the criminal justice system treats disabled people fairly.
In June, we published the findings of our legal aid inquiry and warned that very few victims of discrimination are getting the representation they need in courts or tribunals. Rights mean nothing if they cannot be enforced. Legal advice and support must be available to everyone who needs it - not just those who can afford it.
Whilst I’m pleased that the government is currently reviewing legal aid, it is essential that it implements the recommendations of our inquiry.
Innocent or guilty, the criminal justice system must work fairly for everyone and no one should be at a disadvantage because of an impairment. We’re concerned that disabled people are being placed at risk of miscarriages of justice due to a lack of support within the criminal justice system and, as a result, we have launched an inquiry to assess the scale of the problem.
The inquiry is examining whether defendants’ needs are properly identified and if suitable adjustments are in place to ensure people affected understand the charges against them and how legal procedures work.
The inquiry will also examine how to modernise the court system; technology can often assist and empower disabled people, but we must ensure that its implementation does not end up isolating them further.
Using our legal powers
Our legal powers make us a unique organisation. We have increasingly used these to protect the rights of individuals and to challenge policies or practices that cause disadvantage. We must never forget that our work is about helping people.
We also helped Mr and Mrs Mander, who were told that, although they would be suitable adoptive parents, they could not make an application because only white children were available and so white couples would be prioritised.
These were just two of the many injustices we helped to address where I know these judgments will have a lasting impact on lives.
I also believe that the difficulties disabled people experience when accessing public transport are unacceptable and must not to allowed to continue. Disabled people’s right to take public transport is one that we will continue to work hard to defend vigorously.
For this reason our latest legal support project will focus on individuals who have experienced discrimination while using, or attempting to use, public transport. As we start 2020, we are planning a range of activities to improve the transport industry’s policies and practices. It is essential that the needs of disabled and older people are considered in both current and future designs.
I can’t discuss our enforcement activities this year without mentioning the two on-going investigations into the BBC and the Labour Party. These have resulted in a great deal of pressure and public scrutiny being placed on us.
I cannot comment on the progress and outcomes of the investigations at present but as the national equalities body these investigations demonstrate that we are prepared to use all of powers without fear or favour to address inequalities in our society.
Once we have concluded our work, we will publish our findings and recommendations. Please be patient with us. All our investigations must be conducted fairly and thoroughly.
Monitoring human rights
For the first time ever we can show the public the UK’s progress on our human rights commitments. Our new human rights tracker is the first ever such tool globally and now makes the UK’s human rights record transparent for everyone to see and to hold the Government to account.
As we leave the EU and face a period of great legal change, it is more important than ever that the country is aware of its international commitments and what is required to fulfil them.
Sexual Harassment and Gender Pay Gaps
Two years after the #MeToo campaign brought sexual harassment to the top of the agenda, we have continued to be a leading player in protecting people at work from this abuse of power. Everyone has the right to speak out about harassment and discrimination and the use of non-disclosure agreements should never be used to silence victims.
Our guidance on the use of NDAs will help both employers and employees understand how and when confidentiality agreements should be used.
Last but by no means least, we’ve seen a second successful year for gender pay gap reporting; 100% of organisations with 250 or more employees have reported their data again. We publically named repeat offenders and started six formal investigations into organisations who failed to comply with their obligations and to respond to our warnings.
This resulted in formal agreements committing their organisations to report on time for the next five years or face further legal action. We will continue to use the full force of our powers to ensure that this important information is provided.
In times of change and uncertainty, our new Government has a vital role to play in making Britain fairer. There are many areas where our remit is aligned with the ambitions of government, especially in ensuring that everyone has access to work and is treated fairly - including disabled people.
At the same time, we will work hard to ensure that there is no diminution in our current human rights protections as we leave the EU.
2020 sees the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act and 50 years of the Equal Pay Act. This will be a celebration, but also a time to honestly consider how much progress we have actually achieved.
We have all seen the divisions and inequalities that many experience in our society. New challenges will emerge whilst old issues will sadly persist. What we do know is that even when issues are complex, it’s important that there isn’t a hierarchy of rights.
Rights do sometimes run into conflict with each other and we see this especially in the debate on rights for transgender people. It is our role to help work through these issues with others. All sides must be heard and this is what we are seeking to do in our new guidance for schools and trans children that will be published shortly.
Whilst acknowledging that there will be much to do as we enter a new decade, I do believe we should celebrate the many achievements of the EHRC.
I’m confident that our foundations and track record are stronger than ever and that they will position us well to continue to deliver our important mandate - to promote equality and protect human rights for us all.