Passed on 8 April, the Equality Act was one of the last measures of the outgoing Labour government, which lost office in May 2010. The Act, which covers England, Wales and Scotland (Great Britain) but not Northern Ireland, reflects the pan-equalities (i.e. cross-cutting) approach towards addressing discrimination that gained pace under New Labour. The 2010 act was preceded by the 2006 Single Equality Act, which set up an independent single equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The integrated approach to equality law enforced by a single Commission is reflected in the new act that covers discrimination on grounds of race, religion, gender, disability, age and sexual orientation, as well as socio-economic status, pregnancy and gender reassignment. The pivotal aim of the 2010 act was to achieve simplification and harmonization of existing equality law – it replaces previous laws on all protected strands – and to harmonize protection for different grounds.
A notable feature of the act is the prohibition of multiple discrimination, although a provision that would have allowed for the combination of two grounds of discrimination was removed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in early 2011. The new legislation, which entered into force on 1 October 2010 and will be brought into operation in stages, could assist in closing some of the equality gaps that still exist in British society. A report entitled How Fair Is Britain? by the EHRC draws a picture of a country increasingly at ease with its diversity, but also where – for some minority groups – encountering negative stereotypes and gross violations of their human rights is an everyday experience. This is particularly the case for migrants and Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, but also for some settled minority ethnic groups. In its Fourth Report on the UK published in March, the Council of Europe's ECRI noted with concern that 'racist incidents had become more frequent, police powers were exercised in a manner that disproportionately affected minority groups, Gypsies and Travellers still faced serious discrimination and asylum-seekers remained in a vulnerable position'. ECRI also pointed to severe levels of hostility and prejudice towards these groups, as well as towards Muslims, and to negative media and public discourse with racist and xenophobic overtones.
On the day the African-American activist Reverend Jesse Jackson arrived in the UK to launch a campaign against the discriminatory and disproportionate use of police stop and search powers against black and Asian people, the Guardian newspaper revealed shocking findings of recent research into the issue. According to analysis by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the Open Society Justice Initiative, black people are 26.6 times more likely and Asians are 6.3 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and there are 60 searches for every 1,000 blacks compared with 1.6 for whites. The analysis of government data on stop and search powers under section 60 of the Public Order Act, where a police officer does not require reasonable suspicion to undertake a search, demonstrated obvious racial profiling, according to the study. Revd Jackson said:
'We've gone through this process in our country of ethnic and religious targeting. [...] It resulted in disastrous consequences. Wherever it happens it undermines the moral authority of the democracy. It damages the image of Britain, because Britain is held in high esteem.'
He rejected police claims that race has nothing to do with the practice. 'It is racial profiling. It's as fundamental as that. It is based on sight, suspicion and fear. It's a systematic pattern.'
The excessive use of police force was confirmed by a 2010 ruling of the ECtHR. In the case Gillan and Quinton v. the United Kingdom, the Court investigated sections 44-47 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allowing the police to stop and search individuals without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. It found that the right to respect for the private and family life of the claimants was violated, that the stop and search powers were 'not sufficiently circumscribed' and there were no 'adequate legal safeguards against abuse'. It also concluded that 'the risks of the discriminatory use of the powers' were 'a very real consideration'.
Evidence of the discrimination and human rights abuses suffered by migrants increased considerably during the year. An EHRC inquiry in the meat and poultry processing sector uncovered widespread mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers, including physical and verbal abuse and a lack of proper health and safety protection. The treatment of pregnant workers was highlighted as a particular concern. The report notes that many migrant workers had little knowledge of their rights. the Guardian newspaper quoted a community advocate of the London-based charity Kalayaan that advises migrant domestic workers, who stated:
'Two-thirds of the domestic workers we see report being psychologically abused. That means they've been threatened and humiliated, shouted at constantly and called dog, donkey, stupid, illiterate.'
Drawing from an investigation undertaken by the Dispatches documentary programme for Channel 4, the Guardian reported that 20 per cent of the 15,000 migrant workers who come to the UK every year hoping for better living standards and supporting families left behind are physically abused or assaulted. Examples of abuse included being burnt with irons, threatened with knives and having boiling water thrown at them. Conditions amounting to modern-day slavery were successfully challenged in a case in April. The employment tribunal found a farmer, who treated his workers 'like dogs', guilty of race discrimination, unlawfully docking wages and unfair dismissal.
Concerning Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, the Europe-wide trend towards forced evictions is evident in the UK as well. In a report analysing recent policy changes introduced by the new government, the Institute for Race Relations (IRR) points out that 'the scale of the Gypsy "problem" is remarkably modest.' The report's authors judge that in the whole of England there are probably only 3,729 caravans on unauthorized sites, and 13,708 on private or council sites, and that according to an EHRC report, 'the entire Gypsy and Traveller population could be legally accommodated if as little as one square mile of land were allocated for sites in England'. The new coalition government, however, has withdrawn the £30 million already offered to local authorities to develop Gypsy, Roma and Traveller sites, and on the whole abandoned Labour's more progressive policies to meet the needs of travelling communities. Eric Pickles, the new state secretary for communities said back in 2008, 'It's not fair that hard-working families have to save up to get on the housing ladder while Travellers get special treatment at taxpayers' expense.' Pickles is driving the new 'Travellers policy', including proposals to increase police powers to evict and arrest people for trespassing on private land by turning trespassing from a civil into a criminal offence; making it more difficult to obtain permission to put caravans on private land; abolishing regional planning bodies in charge of provision of registered sites; and revising the allocation of pitches within local authorities.
Human rights campaigners have condemned the prospect of families being evicted from plots of land many of them own and forced to move back onto illegal sites or wasteland camping. In one case, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination requested clarification of plans to demolish the homes of 90 families erected on land they own at Dale Farm, on the outskirts of Basildon, Essex. As a woman living on the farm commented to the BBC:
'It used to be a dirty scrapyard, but we cleaned it up. Each family has their own deeds. [...] The government at the time said let Gypsies and Travellers provide for themselves and so we did.'
In April 2010, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rodnik, also wrote to the British Ambassador to the UN about the proposed mass eviction from Dale Farm. As reported by the IRR, the UK government's response given by the communities and local government minister with responsibility for Gypsies and Travellers has been condemned as inadequate and misleading by the Liberal peer Eric Avebury, for ignoring 'the endemic shortage of sites for Gypsies and Travellers in England' and for not addressing 'acute medical and educational needs of residents, and the combination of local authority cuts and endemic prejudice which has eroded provision of specialist education and welfare services for Gypsy and Traveller children'.
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