Queen’s Speech was a missed opportunity for equality and healing divisions
The appalling attacks on our way of life in Manchester and London changed the mood of the country and the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington has left an indelible mark, says David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
We still live in a country divided between the haves and have nots - old and young, black and white, and different faiths. We know from our review of equality and human rights in Britain that your background sets the path to your future.
Human rights are vital in protecting our safety and freedom. They underpin a society that respects the dignity and worth of every individual. They are at the heart of the values we as a nation hold dear. Yet after the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, there have been calls from some quarters to restrict the very rights and values that the terrorists are seeking to undermine.
In dark times, we look to our politicians to set the tone of leadership, not to put political expediency before the needs and rights of people across the country. We expect them to share a vision of the future for Britain that can inspire and reassure.
The Queen’s Speech came at a time when the country needed the Government to set out a positive vision. While we welcome its commitment to tackling the gender pay gap and to bringing forward legislation to protect victims of domestic violence, we believe that an opportunity has been missed to bring the country together around our shared values.
Brexit and political uncertainty dominate the debate. Call a Brexit deal whatever you like - hard or soft, or red, white and blue - it must set us on a path to retain and strengthen rights in UK law and to keeping Britain’s long track record of fairness intact. This is the time to set the vision for a post-Brexit Britain that values the dignity and worth of every individual, that protects our safety and freedom and in which everyone has a fair chance to succeed.
Fear of political failure means plans to tackle some of the big issues in our society have been left unaddressed. The Courts Bill illustrates the opportunities that have been missed: no response to the erosion of access to justice caused by the Employment Tribunal fees regime, or to address the ‘parent penalty’ by ensuring pregnant women are able to challenge discrimination in a timeframe that recognises the realities of becoming a new mother. No response to our adult deaths in custody inquiry calling for stronger protection of the lives of prisoners with mental health issues. Our stakeholders have also expressed a level of unease about whether the full spectrum of equality issues will be fully acknowledged in the Government's current agreement with the DUP. We will be monitoring developments very closely.
I would like to see more ambition in the Government’s vision for the kind of country we want to be once we leave the European Union. For instance, we have called for the right to equality to be protected in UK law so that all government action and laws can be tested against this fundamental right.
And there are ready-made steps the Prime Minister can take to show her commitment to equality. Parts of the Equality Act 2010 have still not been implemented. The socio-economic duty, which could have ensured local government tackles the issues faced by those being left behind – such as many of the residents of Grenfell Tower - is still not in force. It would mean that large public bodies, like City Halls, Local Authorities and NHS Trusts, would have to consider whether their policies reduce inequality in our society. The Scottish Government are planning to introduce this duty shortly and, by implementing Part 1 of the Equality Act in England, the Government would send a clear signal that it is serious about tackling the gap between the top and bottom across Britain.
Many disabled people in rented properties cannot enter and leave their own homes freely and safely because landlords refuse to make accessible common areas such as hallways, stairways and leisure facilities. The Equality Act already has a provision that would require landlords to make these reasonable adjustments. The Government just needs to bring it into force.
Now is the perfect time to look again at hate crime legislation in England and Wales to ensure that those who inflame divisions in our society are properly dealt with. Unequal legal protections have created a two-tier system where race and religiously aggravated hate crime incidents can be prosecuted more harshly than those motivated by disability, transgender status or sexual orientation. The Government needs to launch a full-scale review of aggravated offences and sentencing provision to send a strong message that our values of respect, fairness and challenging intolerance are central to our national identity.
Some elements of the Queen’s Speech provide welcome opportunities for progress. We await with interest the Department of Health’s review of workplace discrimination in relation to mental health, and urge full and extensive consultation with disabled people on any proposals for change. We will also look carefully at proposals for a Counter Terrorism Strategy and a new Commission for Countering Extremism. We will listen to the arguments, to understand whether any potential changes are necessary, proportionate and consistent with our rights.
The Queen’s Speech has set the Government’s agenda, and the debate has given Parliamentarians an opportunity to question it. As the debate concludes we ask the Government to demonstrate how it will advance the equality and fairness agenda and set out a positive vision for the country all people can identify with.