Legal equality is important, but not enough

We also need to overcome prejudiced attitudes

ASLEF (trade union) Journal – London, UK – February 2014

Over the last half a century, Britain has made great strides towards repealing discriminatory laws and providing a wide range of protection for women and minorities. Starting with laws against racial discrimination, we’ve progressively legislated to secure similar protections on the grounds of gender, disability, religion and belief, age, sexual orientation and gender identity.

This legislative drive culminated in the Equality Act 2010, which replaced the uneven, fragmented patchwork of equal rights laws with a single comprehensive and uniform equality statute, where all of us are equal before the law. A milestone achievement.

Yet repealing discriminatory laws and giving everyone equal legal protection against discrimination is just the first step. We also have the challenge of ensuring these laws are effectively interpreted and enforced. There’s no point having good equality legislation if it’s not put into practice: if, for example, employers don’t ensure equality in the workplace and police don’t crackdown on racist attacks, sexual violence and homophobic hate crime.

What’s more, formal legal equality is not enough. We also need to change the way institutions like businesses, local councils, the NHS, schools, the church and media treat people – and win public opinion in favour of accepting equal rights for all. If ignorant and intolerant attitudes linger despite good laws, prejudice, ostracism, hostility and informal discrimination will continue.

Too many people seem to think that law reform is the be-all and end-all; the final obstacle to overcome. They are mistaken. Despite formal legal equality between the sexes for many years, UK women’s earnings are still only four-fifths of men’s and glass-ceilings still prevent many able women from getting to the top in some professions.

Half a century after the end of racially discriminatory statutes in the US, the informal segregation of black and white communities in some parts of the country is as great as it was in the 1950s. Many poor black people are just as locked out of economic success as they were prior to the start of the civil rights era. Proof that law reform is insufficient.

As well as changing laws, it is also crucial to change attitudes, values and institutions; to win hearts and minds for equality, inclusion and acceptance. The media and education have a crucial role to play. They must now be a key focus of equal rights activism.

The media is the main means of social communication; a prime source of news, ideas and opinions. It impacts on our consciousness every day. This makes it very influential. It stands to reason that a more inclusive and ethical media can help undermine ill-informed prejudice and promote respect and equality.

This is why it is so important that the post-Leveson press watchdog establishes and enforces an ethical code of conduct, similar to the one that the National Union of Journalists has had for decades. Contrary to what the anti-Leveson scaremongers say, the NUJ’s code has never stopped any journalist from investigating and reporting stories. It simply encourages accurate, non-bigoted reporting; including the avoidance of lazy stereotypes and the use of biased language.

We need to make sure that when the new press body gets going it includes ethical guidelines – and that they’re enforced.

The other key means to secure the adoption of equal rights values is the school system.

No child is born bigoted. Some become bigoted; from the bad influences of adults and peers. Early and sustained education can help prevent that. To combat intolerance and bullying, education against all prejudice – including racism, sexism, disableism, ageism, homophobia and transphobia – should be a compulsory subject in every school. Equality and diversity lessons should start from the first year of primary level onwards, with no opt-outs for independent or church schools and no right of parents to withdraw their children.

These lessons in equality and diversity should promote understanding and acceptance of Britain’s many different communities; and the idea that the right to be different is a fundamental human right. The lessons should be subject to annual examination, with the results going on each pupil’s record. They should have to be declared when applying for higher education and jobs. It is in the interests of employers and employees to have a workplace without prejudice. Bigotry is divisive and saps morale.

Making equality and diversity lessons a compulsory part of the national curriculum and a specific, stand-alone examination subject, would ensure that pupils and teachers take these lessons seriously. Otherwise they won’t.

These, then, are two ideas for carrying forward the equality agenda now that formal, legal equality is won. Over to you Dave, Ed and Nick.