Equality and Human Rights in a new landscape

by David Isaac and Rebecca Hilsenrath

Published: 03 Aug 2016

Since becoming our new Prime Minister, Theresa May’s mantra has been ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

But, as the dust finally settles following the outcome of the vote, it still remains unclear what form Brexit will take and what the implications will be for millions of people.

Some commentators argue that leading Brexiteers never clearly spelt out their vision for a Britain outside of the EU, and there is already talk of the differences between ‘hard Brexiteers’ and those who advocate a ‘Brexit-lite’ approach.

Now that we have heard the voice of democracy, what is clear is that there are many difficult choices that still lie ahead.

Following the vote, it is vital for us to review our priorities for promoting equality and human rights in the new landscape.

Britain has a long history of upholding people’s rights, valuing diversity and challenging intolerance. The Commission will be a strong and independent voice that advocates to ensure that, in leaving the EU, we maintain and build on our heritage of respect and inclusion.

We expect to update on progress later in the summer in two key areas. Firstly, the Commission will be a strong guardian of rights.

“We will strongly oppose measures which threaten any reduction in the level of protection of fundamental rights in any part of the UK.”

Our guiding principles for any future constitutional changes are that we must maintain, and, where possible, enhance, the protection and promotion of equality and human rights across the UK. We must make sure that UK bodies’ legal and administrative responsibilities and accountability for equality and human rights are clear.

We will strongly oppose measures which threaten any reduction in the level of protection of fundamental rights in any part of the UK. 

We also believe there is scope to do more to promote equality and human rights where national governments wish to do so, and the evolving landscape provides new opportunities for more progressive action. 

We need to continue to collaborate with, and learn from, other countries to ensure the UK remains a global leader in protecting and promoting equality and human rights. This international cooperation will also help us tackle problems such as the refugee crisis and cross-border travel for disabled passengers.

We also want to safeguard the rights of UK citizens travelling, working or living abroad, and ensure that our presence abroad does not give rise to concerns that we will breach the rights of others.

“The referendum debate and result has exacerbated worrying divisions in British society.”

Secondly, we need to tackle hate crime and promote community cohesion.

The referendum debate and result has exacerbated worrying divisions in British society and has been used by a minority to legitimise race hate.

While the referendum demonstrated that the overwhelming majority in Britain want to engage in our democratic process, many commentators also viewed what happened as acrimonious and divisive. For them, the public debate was too often long on misleading assertion and exaggeration, and short on cool-headed facts.

The divisions were not just between racial, national and ethnic groups but those who feel they have no power, between cities and rural areas, between young and old. 

A spike in race hate incidents has been reported, and some communities are feeling more isolated, vulnerable and uncertain of their future rights to live and work in the UK. 

We will support employers to stand up against racism and support vulnerable workers, and clarify the legal redress for breaches of rights. We will also work with embassies in disseminating information about rights and access to justice for communities at risk.

In addition, we will build on the findings of our research into the links between prejudice and unlawful behaviour to identify and test effective interventions.

Many have also argued that the divisions revealed during and following the referendum campaign also reflect resentment arising from growing socioeconomic inequality.

To address this, we will continue to press for implementation of the public sector duty regarding socioeconomic inequalities in the Equality Act 2010. This would ensure that public bodies have to take account of the impact on socioeconomic inequality when formulating policies and address to address negative impacts.

We will work with others to address data gaps and build our evidence base on differences between regions, the relationships between protected characteristics and socioeconomic disadvantage, including those at risk of suffering multiple disadvantages. This builds on our work to assess the cumulative impact of government policies such as welfare reform.

Finally, we will build our relationship with the Social Mobility Commission and other key poverty stakeholders across Britain to improve our knowledge of the key issues and effective interventions.

As our constitutional tectonic plates begin to move and then form again, the Commission’s role as an effective and muscular champion of equality and human rights will be more important than ever.