Alarming reductions in access to justice, increasing child poverty and a weakened safety net for the poorest, growing challenges for those with disabilities and widespread bullying and sexual harassment are some of the factors that have contributed to backwards moves in equality in the UK over the last three years, according to a new report.
The Is Britain Fairer? project by the Equality and Human Rights Commission reviews the state of equality and human rights in England, Scotland and Wales. It finds that there have been improvements in many areas while in others things have gone backwards with a danger that the UK is becoming a “two-speed society”.
Improvements include greater equality in education, political participation and work, with women and some ethnic minorities more likely to be in work and women in particular more likely to be in higher pay occupations. The report says more children are now performing to the required standards at school, more people from ethnic minorities are obtaining degree level qualifications and more people from disadvantaged areas are attending university.
It notes that the gender pay gap is reducing and highlights how the gender pay audits have increased transparency in this area. People generally are more involved in politics and accessing services online.
However, the report says disabled people are finding themselves increasingly excluded from mainstream society, starting in education and continuing later in life. It says the disability pay gap persists and the likelihood of disabled people being in low-pay occupations has increased. It states: “Disabled people are more likely to be in poverty, they face poorer health and a lack of access to suitable housing. There has been a sharp increase in recorded disability hate crimes and disabled people experience high rates of domestic abuse and sexual assault in England and Wales.”
While people from certain ethnic minorities, such as Indian people, have continued to succeed in education and at work, the report notes that Black African, Bangladeshi and Pakistani people are still the most likely to live in poverty and along with Black Caribbean people are more likely to experience severe deprivation, which is damaging their health and education and work prospects. Some ethnic minorities have poorer access to healthcare and higher rates of infant mortality, and black people have low trust in the criminal justice system. Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, the report states, face multiple disadvantages including achieving below-average school results, experiencing difficulties accessing healthcare, worse health, and often have low standards of housing.
Other concerns are persistent sexual and domestic violence, particularly against women and girls and the report says there has been “a marked backwards move” in justice and personal security since 2015. Reductions in legal aid and changes to the legal system have led to individuals not being able to access justice, says the report. In addition, there has also been a deterioration in detention conditions, with more incidents of self-harm and assaults and with overcrowding in prisons risking prisoner safety.
David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “Britain is facing a defining moment in the pursuit of equality. We’ve seen some significant areas of progress, particularly in the improvement of opportunities in education and at work, as well as the fact that more people are now engaging in politics. However, in an already divided nation, some unacceptable gaps continue to grow. Across many areas in life, the losers struggle to make headway in a society where significant barriers still remain. They are the forgotten and the left behind and unless we take action, it will be at least a generation before we put things right.
“The reality of Brexit will be with us early next year and our review provides a benchmark against which to measure the impact of leaving the EU on equality and human rights. Brexit presents a real opportunity to discuss and define the type of country we want to be. We are committed to standing up for justice, freedom and compassion; traits which define our country and should be our guiding principles in our changing world. If everyone has a fair chance in life, our society thrives.”
The report makes a number of recommendations to Governments and other organisations to tackle the issues identified in the report and support increased equality in Great Britain.
These include a call for governments across Britain to conduct and publish assessments of the combined impact of tax and welfare reform, and public spending decisions, on people sharing different protected characteristics and the
poorest in society, to inform national Budgets and Spending Reviews. It says the UK Government should also reinstate the binding targets from the Child Poverty Act 2010 for England, and develop a strategy for meeting these. It calls for “an acute focus on improving life in Britain for disabled people”, including support for flexible and part-time working to help close the disability employment and pay gap. And it says schools should record and monitor prejudice-based
bullying and sexual harassment in order to tackle these effectively.
To reduce the gender pay gap, it calls on employers to offer all jobs as open to flexible or part-time working from
day one wherever possible and for changes to legislation and a statutory code of practice to deal with all forms of harassment at work. To improve justice and personal security, it recommends that the Government should assess the impact of cuts to legal aid and develop an action plan to address lack of access to advice.
The findings of the report will inform EHRC’s strategic programme of work for the next three years.