Why equality laws must be defended

Liz Lawrence looks at why equality laws should be defended and what the situation was, and could be again, without equality laws


Among the objectionable themes the far-right has been taking up recently has been a call for abolition of equality laws. These laws are presented as unfair burdens on business and ‘woke’ nonsense.  For instance, the Reform UK manifesto states:

“Replace the 2010 Equalities Act. The Equalities Act requires discrimination in the name of ‘positive action’. We will scrap Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DE&I) rules that have lowered standards and reduced economic productivity.”

The Reform UK manifesto also calls for scrapping all Diversity, Equality and Inclusion roles in the police force.

The challenge to equality from the far-right

Increasingly right-wing politicians attack the Equality Act 2010 and the general principle of anti-discrimination legislation. The argument that positive action (or affirmative action as it is known in the USA and many other countries) is reverse discrimination is an old one. The arguments mobilised against equality laws are that they interfere with market forces, that they restrict the right of employers to run businesses as they choose, and that they create unnecessary administration.

There is sometimes particular venom directed against posts in organisations responsible for the implementation of equality and diversity policies. These are pilloried as egregious waste of funds. The thought of women, Black people, disabled people and representatives of various oppressed groups (as well as some white males) being paid a decent professional salary to uphold the Equality Act and see it is implemented is deeply offensive to the far-right. These people often object similarly to employment of experts in Health and Safety or environmental protection.

What the far-right is arguing for is a “right” to discriminate unfairly on grounds of sex, race, disability, age, gender identity, maternity, sexual orientation, religion and nationality, and any other grounds on which the discriminator may wish to discriminate. The proposal to abolish the Equality Act 2010 is an upfront assertion of a right to discriminate.

It must be understood that the far-right rejects the principle of equal opportunities. We are being presented with a world view in which the best jobs should be reserved for white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, heterosexual, native-born and non-disabled males, and the rest of humanity can get to the back of the queue. This is a complete abandonment of the principle of equal opportunities, which gained widespread social acceptance in the 1980s, as a result of the Women’s Liberation Movement and movements for race equality, such as the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.

An age of equal opportunities?

During the 1970s and 1980s a consensus developed in many work organisations among managers, Human Resources staff and trade union representatives in favour of implementation of equal opportunities policies in recruitment and selection, training and provision of goods and services. It also included the provision of some positive action programmes. This was often tied to the business case for equal opportunities and diversity, or, in the case of public sector and not-for-profit organisations, the quality case. This led in some cases to the employment of specialist equality and diversity staff and to a role for trade union representatives on committees concerned with implementing equality and diversity policies. Equality issues also featured more in the bargaining agenda of trade unions.

While some of these processes may be seen as a bureaucratisation of equal opportunities and while they did not deliver all the changes under-represented groups hoped for, there are still some gains in having institutional support for the principle of equal opportunities, compared to casual and unthinking acceptance of discrimination and exclusion as the norm.

In recent decades this relatively progressive trend in work organisations has come under attack from the far-right. It has also been undermined by the decline in trade union power in many workplaces and the existence of precarious forms of employment, since it is harder for workers to assert any rights when working on temporary contracts.

Equality laws

While politicians of the far-right call for the abolition of equality laws, their knowledge of what they contain can be quite vague. There is sometimes a failure to acknowledge that the Equality Act 2010 incorporates much previous equality legislation, including basic anti-discrimination provisions.

The Equality Act 2010 incorporated (and hence repealed):

Equal Pay Act 1970

Sex Discrimination Act 1975

Race Relations Act 1976

Sex Discrimination Act 1986

Race Relations (Remedies) Act 1994

Disability Discrimination Act 1995

And parts of many other acts dealing with equality matters.

So, while the call is to replace or abolish one act, the Equality Act 2010, this is an act which incorporate several preceding decades of equality legislation. Among the important features of the legislation are the recognition and outlawing of both direct and indirect discrimination, and a right to sue if victimised in relation to an equality issue.

The Equality Act 2010 defines nine protected characteristics, namely: age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage or civil partnership (in employment only); pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation.  There is a need to extend protection under the Equality Act to include some groups not currently protected, including non-binary people.

Life before equality laws

While some people may view equality laws as relatively ineffective, especially if they have experienced discrimination and been unable to obtain a legal remedy, it is important to summarise what life was like before there were equality laws.

Between the first and second world wars there was a marriage bar for women in teaching and the civil service.  If a female teacher or civil servant married, she lost her job. This was lawful in a context where there were no laws prohibiting discrimination on grounds of sex or marriage.

Before the Equal Pay Act 1970 came into force at the end of 1975 it was lawful to have single-sex pay grades. For instance, in the engineering industry there were four grades of pay: skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled and women’s. After the Equal Pay Act came into effect at the end of 1975 all pay grades had to be unisex.

Before the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 came into force it was lawful and commonplace for job advertisements to specify the sex of the worker required for the job. After the SDA came into force employers could still specify the sex of the worker in the case of a genuine occupational qualification, but the overwhelming majority of jobs were advertised in a way which did not specify the sex of the job applicant.

Before the Employment Protection Act 1975, it was lawful for an employer to dismiss a worker for having a baby.  There was no legal right to maternity leave or to return to work after childbirth.

In the areas of employment, housing and provisions of goods and services, jobs or provision could be refused on grounds of sex and race, until the enactment of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976. Without this legislation there was no legal remedy if refused employment or service on account of sex or race. Prior to the existing framework of equality law on race and sex, discrimination could be open and blatant.

Before the Disability Discrimination Act 1975 there was no duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments to support employment of disabled workers. There was also less awareness in terms of design of buildings and no regulations requiring that disability access be addressed in the design of buildings.

How effective are equality laws?

Social movements for equality and liberation have at times put considerable energies into campaigns for anti-discrimination legislation. They have also debated how far the law can provide a remedy to discrimination and disadvantage, recognising that it cannot change the economic order of society, nor indeed overnight change people’s prejudices.

Nonetheless, while legislation does not immediately change prejudices, it can prevent people acting upon their prejudices. Over the longer-term it can be argued (and hoped) that equality laws produce more progressive and enlightened attitudes. Many people today would be shocked if they saw openly discriminatory job or housing advertisements. They would experience culture shock if transported back in time to the early 1970s.

Equality laws cover education and training. Equal access and provision in this area has major implications for equality in employment and many areas of social life. There have been many positive action initiatives in education and training to encourage disadvantaged groups to acquire non-traditional qualifications and to succeed. There has been work to raise both aspirations and attainment.

The Equality Act 2010 applies to trade unions and professional bodies. While many unions have policies supportive of equality and diversity, the presence of a legal obligation to act within the Equality Act 2010 can also be useful in ensuring trade unions pay attention to equality. Many trade unions have equality structures, including specialist committees and conferences and reserved seats on national executives. While these changes were principally a result of social movements for equality, and activists from these social movements raising equality issues in trade unions, the legal requirements are also helpful.

Links between equality laws and workers’ rights

Equality rights should be understood as part of workers’ rights. The outlawing of unfair discrimination strengthens the workers’ movement and helps to unite workers.

Equality laws, as they apply to employment, restrict the employer prerogative, particularly with regard to recruitment and promotion. The existence of equal pay laws, especially if supported by effective equal pay audits, can support transparent payment systems.

It should be noted too that those employers who oppose equality laws often also oppose other laws on workers’ rights.

In recent decades trade unions have used equality laws around equal pay and other equality issues as a basis for collective bargaining and organising. Trade unions have also become increasingly aware of the equality dimensions of regulations around working time and part-time and temporary workers. Issues like casualisation and workloads can be understood as equality issues. Having a comprehensive framework of equality law, while not essential, has been supportive to trade unions in raising equality issues at the bargaining table.

What would repeal of equality laws means?

While we are not at a point where a government is likely to be elected which would repeal equality laws, we do need to understand how reactionary this demand it. We must not under-rate the extent to which the far-right rejects principles of non-discrimination and equal treatment.

What would it mean for equality if equality laws were repealed and people were free to express prejudices and offend without any threat of legal sanction? We have already seen some people exercise an extraordinary level of capacity to engage in hate speech and give offence in recent years. During the Brexit referendum there were attacks on migrant workers and other groups and the murder of Jo Cox MP. For some on the far-right the demand for free speech easily slips in to the right to engage in hate speech and incitement to violence against opponents.

If a legal duty to provide equal treatment is removed, then much equality monitoring could also disappear. Equality monitoring has been an important tool for implementing equality and diversity policies. Equality monitoring data can be used both to raise awareness of inequalities and to measure progress towards eliminating them. If, for instance, however, there were no equal pay laws then there would be less pressure on governments and employers to record pay data, by sex, race and disability.

Rights which have been won by social movements can be reversed. In the USA the repeal of Roe versus Wade has had disastrous implications for women’s equality and healthcare.  It has encouraged anti-abortion forces worldwide.


It is important to remember and to learn about what life was like before equality laws. While workers should not rely on the law to provide equal treatment in the workplace and should build effective union organisation, we should also understand that any diminishing of equality laws would be a setback for the workers’ movement. Equality activists and the organised labour movement must speak out in defence of equality laws, seeking their strengthening, extension and effective implementation.

Liz Lawrence is a past President of UCU and active in UCU Left.

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