Creating a fairer Britain
Pretty much daily now, I read that in a time of financial restraint we can't afford our anti-discrimination and equality laws. That we can't afford to do the right thing.
That the Equality Act passed last year is bad for business.
And that our Commission is a fearsome Stalinist bureaucracy terrorising wealth creators and crushing small businesses.
I want to argue today that to the contrary, equality and human rights are essential to economic recovery, and that the critics of the fairness agenda are just plain wrong.
Wrong because they are out of step with Coalition Britain. In May 2010 the electors opted for fiscal conservatism coupled with social liberalism. People want fairness even in a time of austerity.
Wrong because without equality law we encourage cowboy capitalism, in which businesses cheat their fair-minded competition by treating their employees unfairly and short-changing their customers.
Wrong because at the EHRC we already know that there are many businesses out there who exceed even our expectations on the equality and diversity agenda - and who are prospering because of it.
Wrong because the Equality Act will help us to spend public money on those who really need it.
And wrong because there will not be a sustainable recovery unless it's an inclusive recovery.
We can't solve our public spending problems at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged; and if jobs and prosperity return for everybody except women, ethnic minorities, the young, the old or disabled people then we will still be paying the welfare bill for people who are kept out of work by discrimination. They want to work and we need them to pay their taxes.
So whatever the answer to Britain's economic problems, in this recession, being fair, and being seen to be fair, will be central to the task of bringing Britain back to prosperity. Equality and inclusion are good for our economy. We aren't making a case for special treatment. We are just asking everyone to do the right thing.
But to read our papers and follow our media you wouldn't imagine that the fairness agenda had much to contribute to the economy. Instead, recently, the nation's been both entertained and outraged by a spate of public controversies about identity politics. So I want to start with some of the media preoccupations of the past few weeks.
Disputes about how we manage the differences between social groupings are just about the only thing that competes with the economy for volume, frequency and stridency of media coverage.
Consider the record since the start of 2011. Barrels of ink spilt on:
From America, there's been a raging controversy about whether the tough regime presided over by Chinese mothers is the secret of educational success - or is it just a racial myth? All of these issues had people talking. And I've probably missed some stories.
But I'm going to disappoint you today. In spite of the temptation we aren't going to add our voices to the cacophony. That's not because we're afraid of controversy - but because in our view there really isn't a row to be had.
There's a lot of shrill opinion, most of it unfettered by fact or evidence. But once you get past the polemic and fight your way through the sound and the fury, there aren't many fundamental differences.
Let's start with the discrimination cases. The law is the law - it doesn't really matter what you want it to say; what it actually says is that you may not discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation; end of.
In the bed and breakfast case if the boot had been on the other foot and someone had been turned away because they wore a cross and carried a Bible, I'm pretty sure that we would have supported their case because the law is quite clear - you can't discriminate on religious grounds either.
On grooming, both the courts and the investigation by the Times have shown that there is a real, despicable crime being conducted and that a specific, racialised version of it is concentrated in a particular group of communities. No amount of contextual explanation can or should disguise that fact.
But Pakistani communities don't need to be defensive here, any more than African Caribbeans have to be about the disproportionate levels of gun crime in our communities; or white communities about the fact that white-collar fraud is by and large done by white men.
Today most reasonable people can accept that a specific group of criminals may come from a particular place or ethnic group. But we don't need to stereotype an entire community to acknowledge that fact.
I think on this kind of issue, we could all do with a bit of calming down.
There’s no need for us to become dinner party demagogues – we need to concentrate our efforts on the truly dangerous - the English Defence League for example - rather than the trivial, the tasteless and the vulgar.
So even if we had the powers to intervene in what is said on TV - which we don't - the Commission doesn't need to respond to every bit of schoolboy provocation on the BBC - let's say about the character of the Mexican people. Speaking personally, as a TV producer, I can't argue with the fact that Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond are brilliant talents. They have created a set of on-screen cartoon characters which from my brief experience of meeting Clarkson are nothing like the real people. But they do the job they’re supposed to do - get millions of people to watch a bunch of middle-aged blokes mucking about with cars.
Getting into a ruck with Clarkson over what he says about one group of people or another won't change anyone's mind or tackle prejudice. It would simply add to the Top Gear team's carefully cultivated notoriety.
Firing off letters threatening to sue broadcasters for millions of pounds, demanding programmes get taken off air and spuriously citing the Equality Act makes good newspaper copy. But by making it appear that equality legislation is all about policing schoolboy humour we undermine the serious work of tackling the very real prejudices and discrimination many people face on a daily basis.
So I don't think we should be in the business of helping anyone sell more DVDs, because that's really what this is about. There are just too many real causes of disadvantage and discrimination for us to be passionate about. What we do about these is what I want to address today.
My first message is that things have changed. Britain has changed. And that means that our business has got to change.
In the last thirty years, we've achieved real reductions in the levels of overt and everyday discrimination that were common a generation ago.
Most people would now be ashamed to think that working people like my parents were shoved into Rachman slums because they weren't even entitled - many years after they'd arrived - to seek social housing. The ghastly sexism we saw in 'Made In Dagenham' today looks antiquated and comedic at this distance; and thank heavens, today, "queer-bashing" is no longer a male rite of passage but a ticket to jail.
But the fact that attitudes in general have changed shouldn't lead us to adopt the complacency that some of the equality agenda's critics are inviting. That would be literally fatal for many in our society.
Ask any black or gay or transsexual person who lives with the threat of hate crime. Or the learning disabled person befriended and then brutalised by bullies. Or the 1 in 4 women who have experienced domestic violence.
The gender pay gap is still unjustifiable. The educational failure of some groups, including poor white boys is a national disgrace. And the new sport of cyber-bullying has taken homophobia into the internet age.
There's still so much to do.
The equality warrior's job isn't over. Far from it. It's just that the battle has moved on to new fronts.
Our Triennial Review published last October revealed some of the major issues for this decade: the fact that black and Pakistani babies are twice as likely to die in their first year as White or Bangladeshi babies; the dreadful educational outcomes for groups like Gypsies and Travellers, some black and some white groups; the downward spiral of outcomes for disabled people particularly those with a history of mental illness; as well as the seemingly unshakeable employment and pay gaps facing even the most successful women and ethnic minorities.
These are the challenges that really matter in today's Britain.
I've been an equality warrior for nearly forty years now and I'm fully aware that prejudice and bigotry are still alive in Britain. But I think we need to be able to recognise our successes and stop wasting energy and resource on yesterday's battles.
Today some would like us to stay trapped in pointless disputes about words, They say they're waging a war on political correctness and doublespeak.
But I think those who are still fighting the phantom armies of Political Correctness need to wake up and smell the coffee. They've lost the argument and to some degree lost the plot; they are really now fighting a rearguard action against the public, particularly the under-40s, who are more liberal and tolerant than ever before, as our Review showed.
On the other hand there are those who still act as though we are still in the days of Alf Garnett's imagination, of men-only clubs, of routine, pervasive racism, and of the vicious baiting of disabled people. Of course, there are still many examples of such bigotry - and I will come to Sky Sports in a moment - but the difference is that today, most of us recognise the ugly face of prejudice when we see it.
This isn't about suppressing free speech or humour. There's always been a rich vein of humour about being Jewish or black, or older, say, that pushes at the edges of our anxieties about human difference. Americans particularly, like Richard Pryor, Woody Allen and Joan Rivers have been funny for decades and are still making us laugh.
But they don't just lazily point the finger at black or Jewish or older people and invite us to laugh at them - they are smart and observant and hold up a mirror to our own shortcomings.
The playground style finger pointing that now sometimes passes for comedy is just cruel and bullying and above all it just isn't funny.
Britain has moved on.
For similar reasons, few employers or organisations need heavy handed political or bureaucratic interventions to show them that they've made a mistake.
A good example is the Sky Sports affair, where James Murdoch and his executives didn't hesitate to show Andy Gray and Richard Keys the red card. Good for them. Neither we nor Ofcom had to issue angry denunciations, or ring anyone up and threaten some kind of legal action. Sky's bosses know their business - that's why they're massively successful. And here they instinctively knew what they needed to do. More importantly, they also knew what Sky's ten million subscribers would want them to do.
In politics too, there’s now a consensus amongst all three major parties that we do need a legal basis for the fight against unfairness and inequality. I think the politicians also agree that though we are doing better, we still have a lot of work to do.
That political consensus was embodied in the 2010 Equality Act which provides a new, rational and scientific approach to promoting change and was supported and written by Harman, and May, and Featherstone (and for what it's worth, by Phillips). The principle of equality has now risen above the left-right divide; the argument now is not about whether we need the 2010 Act - but about what we do with it.
So what we really don't need is people hurling epithets at each other in the media. We may disagree about what to do about unfairness and inequality when we see it but that difference of opinion doesn't make us obnoxious or bigoted.
Nor should we shirk the sort of debate triggered by the Prime Minister's speech on Saturday. I don't intend to dwell on this today, but I don't agree with those who say that he was wrong to address this issue, and I don't think that any leading public figure should time their speeches according to the dictates of the EDL; we truly would be lost if we gave in to their bullying.
I appreciate the sensitivity in Muslim communities that has led even some of the politicians I most admire - and I am speaking here of Sadiq Khan - to respond in a way that seems uncharacteristic. But while we're talking about common values, perhaps we can also deploy a little British understanding here. I would not have used Sadiq's words and I don't agree with his sentiments. I'm also glad that the PM has not responded in kind.
But it's vital to the debate that we understand the depth of feeling in a community that feels itself under siege. I do, and I have felt it continuously for most of my life.
I first saw a black man being beaten mercilessly by the police, at the age of eight, on my way home from church, outside the gates of Finsbury Park. To this day I can hear the sounds of the truncheon on bone and see the sight of the blood.
My parents left Britain for America in the late 1960s because of Powellism. The moral panic of the 1970s focused on young black men; every young black man was treated as a possible mugger, you couldn't drive while black, no-one would give you a job and too many died in police or prison custody.
I was lucky to escape through education. But many of my friends weren't. So I really do know what it feels like to have the finger pointed at your community and your culture, and I sympathise with those who feel picked on.
But we can't deal with this debate by effectively declaring some views off limits or saying that we can talk about it, just not today. That was the strategy that led to fascist parties becoming a permanent part of the political landscape in France and Holland. We have to engage with the substance.
So let me say a word about David Cameron' speech. I think that there is a great deal in what the Prime Minister said. Yes, we need to tackle extremism. Yes, I'm delighted that he set commitments to human rights and to equality as his first key benchmarks for social decency. And yes, on the tricky issue of culture, he is right that the state should not aid in the construction of walls around communities, but focus on providing support for integration.
I can give my friends cassava pone and conkie at home, but I don't need a government circular to tell me to do it, and God forbid, I don't require my children's schools to provide it as a symbol of state approval.
But if we are truly to live a common culture, Mr Cameron has to set a challenge for his Ministers, and we need to hear more about how they will meet that challenge.
Integration is a two-way street.
Most minority communities don't choose to be isolated; the barriers of discrimination and exclusion are built by the whole society. So the state does have a role in bringing down those barriers. First, by backing determined action against discrimination. And second by ensuring that its economic strategy is paralleled by an inclusion plan that prevents cuts and unemployment isolating some communities even further.
But above all we ought to be able to discuss these issues without name-calling. What the public really wants is a pragmatic, systematic, approach to making our society fairer and more equal.
Both the Top Gear Tendency, which bangs on about obnoxious feminists, and the PC Lobby which wants the Commission to be a strident, boot-faced, politically correct thought police are now just hanging on at the fringes of public life. They are all, like the dinosaurs, on their way out.
Britain has moved on. So we too have to move on, adopting an approach which learns from the past but is designed for the future. That's what we are trying to do at the Commission.
In the past both the legal framework and the political climate have to some extent forced our predecessors to focus on individual cases, courtroom battles and remedies after something has happened. Sometimes such cases set precedents that influence the way that others behave.
But today, in the era of continuous cultural change this one-by-one, retrospective approach seems slow, overly legalistic and wholly inadequate to the scale of the challenge.
So my second message is that, today, we need to take a more systemic and preventive course. And the new environment means that EHRC can be a little more ambitious and perhaps more radical in its approach than our predecessors.
You could summarise our aim for the next five years as making sure that people do the right thing when we're not in the room.
They need to know that we're outside the door ready to step in if it looks like they can't or won't do the job themselves; but in the best of all worlds the only people that we should be doing the legal mud-wrestling with are what some Americans now call the RBGs - the Really Bad Guys, like the BNP.
We start with a lot of public goodwill towards our mission. But we could squander that goodwill very quickly if we don't do the job well, or if we adopt the wrong tone.
One prerequisite for doing our job well is adequate resources, well spent. That is why we've already started the process - long before the spending review was even a glint in the Chancellor's eye - of reducing our costs and changing our mix of skills. Like everyone else in public service we're going to take a hit as a result of the spending review; but insofar as there's a silver lining here, I don't think it'll be any bigger than anywhere else.
What may change is the balance between what we do and what the government does itself. There's no settlement on that issue yet, and it may take some months to get there. But we intend to ensure that the outcome will interfere as little as possible with our core mission in this new world.
What is more important now is how we do our job most effectively. And that means we have to start with a clear idea of what the task is.
The three factors that will most drive discrimination and disadvantage over the next five years are: how our country manages the economy; the reductions in public spending; and the change in relationship between state and citizen.
So the Commission is restructuring in order to focus on our contemporary mission; to do our work more efficiently, for example using "lightning strike" investigations as well as our more lengthy formal legal inquiries.
We have already announced that we'll be cutting our staff costs substantially; the aim here is to spend less on our own bureaucracy, and more money on ensuring that government and business act according to the highest standards of equality and human rights.
We have already saved the taxpayer tens of millions by removing the requirement for over 40 000 public bodies to produce elaborate equality schemes, which actually allowed people to pretend they were making a difference when all they were actually doing was ticking the boxes.
In the coming weeks we'll be explaining how we intend to play our part in reducing the fear of employment and anti-discrimination legislation. Too many employers - particularly small ones - are depriving themselves of the talent that is abundant amongst women and other underrepresented groups.
We'll be proposing new outcome-focused ways of regulating both the private and public sectors that reward those who really work for inclusion; and ensuring that no-one is allowed to gain competitive advantage by trying to get round equality law.
Finally we'll also be talking more about performance rankings and league tables; about our ideas for citizen-regulators, consumer-regulators and shareholder-regulators. Our own version of the Big Society goes well beyond volunteering to putting real information and power in the hands of individuals in society.
But our ambitions stretch far beyond statutory compliance. Many firms and public bodies already outperform the basic standards by miles. The benchmarks for the future should reflect the best performance rather than the grudging achievement of the minimum legal threshold. The new public mood gives us the chance to set some new norms and standards. But to win public support for our mission, we'll also have to adopt a new tone.
At the moment what people associate with us is the rigid bureaucratic approach to fairness that has often characterised the so-called PC brigade.
Our critics suggest that the equality business is wrong-headed, supporting minority advantage without thought, and doing so always at the expense of the majority.
They ignore it when we stand up for the human rights of, say young soldiers or older people in desperate straits, or draw attention to the problems of middle aged women caring for their elderly parents. On the other hand they make a great deal of fuss when we support unpopular groups - which by the way is always going to be part of our job.
The media and some parliamentarians also make a song and dance over every example of overzealous equality practice, even if we ourselves disown it.
But, as we daily point out this isn't a fair world, and there's no reason why we should expect politicians or media to be fair to us.
It would perhaps help if equality and human rights issues were viewed less as purely moral issues where everyone can have their own theory, adduce their own evidence and draw conclusions based on little more than their own individual experience - or worse still their own vested interest.
Put another way, we need to make the equality and diversity field a bit less about subjective, often political standards, and a lot more about scientific discipline. That doesn't mean we take the passion out of the issues; it just means we have to set aside some of the prejudices. And we are now better placed than ever before to make that leap.
Today we know a lot more about what causes discrimination and disadvantage than when the first anti-discrimination laws were passed; and we know it's not a story written in black and white.
We know that some ethnic minorities do well in education and employment whilst other do not - and they aren't necessarily the same groups in each case.
We know that the life chances and career opportunities of women with children are different to those of women without children.
We know that for everyone, the early years are critical, but that some families are much more successful at providing the right environment than others.
We know that disability is an immensely complex and multifaceted concept; and we haven't even begun as a society to make a dent on the huge issues associated with mental health and the workplace.
And we know that some inequalities are not about a single characteristic but about a combination - such as the effect of being a woman with no qualifications. The lifetime earnings gap between a highly educated woman and her male peer is about 4%; for the unqualified woman the gap is 58%.
We know that it isn't all about money. The wheelchair using multi-millionaire who wants to get into a restaurant might have enough cash to buy the place ten times over, but if there's no ramp he's still just a bloke sitting on the pavement in the rain.
And we are all facing new questions about identity.
The mixed race child does not want to be asked to choose whether she is black or white; she just wants to be herself. And the gay man doesn't want to be put in a box which stereotypes him as great with colour but evidently uninterested in football - it is possible to be both, by the way.
As with all scientific disciplines, we will always have more questions than answers. But these are issues for the whole society to debate on the basis of fact and evidence, not on journalistic whimsy. That means we need more data. More analysis. More rigour.
And particularly at this time of fiscal restraint we need to ensure that we're spending money to help those who really face problems, rather than those we assume must be in trouble.
Let me give you a real world example.
If we hadn't started to collect school pupil data consistently by ethnicity ten years ago we might well have continued to spend money on the crude one-size-fits-all anti-racism schemes of the 1980s which totally failed to tackle the educational failure of African Caribbean boys.
We would have continued blaming white teachers for what we thought was Asian failure - until we saw that Indian children were actually outperforming almost every other group and doing twice as well as Pakistani heritage students.
And we would have failed to spot the emergence of perhaps the most troubling educational failure today - that of poor white boys.
I can see the paradox here. No-one wants to be treated as a category - but in order to direct resources properly and to liberate people from disadvantage based on their race, gender or sexual orientation - we need to understand exactly what's going on, rather than rely on guesswork and anecdote.
And there's still too much we don't know.
We still don't understand why Chinese children outperform everyone else, or why their educational achievement is virtually unaffected by social class - whilst that of the next most successful group - Indians - is. I for one don't believe that poor Indian families are somehow less tough, or less ambitious for their children.
We still don't know why the infant mortality rates I mentioned turn out the way they do.
So my third message is that the case for a new evidence-led approach seems incontestable.
But there's another reason that I believe that getting the equality agenda right is now more vital than ever.
Equality and fairness are good for our economy.
We've faced recession before; but this time we have an opportunity to learn from the past and to make the recovery sustainable, both politically and economically by making our path back to prosperity both secure and inclusive.
What might that mean in practice?
First, the spending review and the cuts that follow must not fall disproportionately on already disadvantaged social groupings. That is why we have launched a formal assessment of the October Spending Review's effects on social groupings protected under equality laws.
I am pleased to say that the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary have strongly supported us, and that we have the Treasury's cooperation; they too understand that unless their plans can be shown to be fair they stand little chance winning the sustained and widespread political support they need.
In particular we know that the job cuts in the public sector are likely to hit female employment massively; 40% of women work in the public sector compared to 15% of men. You actually don't need to do any maths to see what's going to happen here; but we do need to think what might happen to ordinary families who depend on both parents working.
Second, as thoughts now turn to the issue of growth, we also need to consider how we ensure that the recovery, however faltering or fragile is fair and inclusive.
No-one is going to accept a plan for growth unless it offers opportunities for everyone to benefit - particularly when it comes to jobs. And the history of recent recovery plans doesn't look so good for some groups.
Before this recession, the UK enjoyed a long period of sustained growth. Around 4 million jobs were created in that period. But the country suffered persistent unemployment, with some 4.5 million people on benefits before the recession started. So, what do we know about who was being left out?
Ethnic minorities were far less likely to be in employment than their white counterparts. Prior to the recession, about three quarters of the population were employed but only 46% of Bangladeshis were in work. Even the most successful minority groups, outperforming all other groups educationally, fell far below the national average: 61% of the Chinese population and 69% of Indians were in work.
For gender, 26% of women worked part time compared to 6% of men.
But disabled men with low or no qualifications fared the worst; their employment rate halved between the 1970s and 2002.
This is a drain on the public purse. It forces employers to turn to immigrant workers for skills and labour. And it is keeping too many people idle and in poverty.
It's a dreadful waste.
If the 2 million new jobs in the private sector do arrive, they too must be part of a fair and inclusive approach to restoring prosperity.
We do have a choice: a jobless recovery with all the social problems that follow; or a continued dependency on immigrants who are expensive or exploited.
Or a truly determined effort to reduce the scale of unemployment and underemployment amongst the young never-worked, the older forced-outs, women, ethnic minorities, and disabled people, especially those who have experienced mental illness.
That would require a serious programme for a fair and inclusive recovery, to run alongside the economic strategy. It would have to bring every part of government to bear on the task of ensuring that the effects of painful spending reductions of the next few years will be fairly distributed by social grouping; and that makes sure that we create a recovery that is truly inclusive.
Does the Equality and Human Rights Commission have a role here?
Yes it does.
We have a part to play in the process of deficit reduction
And when it comes to recovery, there are some specific uses of our powers that we believe can play a major role getting Britain back to prosperity.
We want to help firms find their new talent amongst people who are eager to work and keen to show what they can do.
We can also help by making our regulatory function more flexible.
We want those who are already showing the way on equality and diversity grounds to benefit by having to do less up front work and being able to spend less money on qualifying for public contracts; and the new Equality Act explicitly provides for this possibility.
And we want to help to identify those sectors which are ready and willing to play their part in putting the whole of Britain back to work.
This in a sense is the start of our new offer to Britain in a time of austerity.
And this is my final message today. Equality is not a burden to the nation. It's what Britain expects. It's part of what doing the right thing means in our modern society.
To business I would say that we want to make it a competitive advantage to be fair and inclusive.
Our principal work is not really with those who play by the rules - it's with those who just don't want to be fair.
This marks a new departure for us.
We now live in a country that we think is on the side of our mission; but which also expects us to be more than a noisy commentator. The Commission wants to be a catalyst for change; but we'll achieve change, not as a state-funded pressure group, but as:
In the next few years we will be focused on one thing above all - bringing about an inclusive recovery and showing that equality and human rights, far from being an expensive luxury, are essential to our sustained prosperity.
In the end our job is to help Britain as a whole do what we all want in our own lives.
To be decent.
To be fair.
To do the right thing.