Why we should scrap the Equality Act

New Labour’s flagship equality law has let identity politics run amok for the past 14 years.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Identity Politics Politics UK

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Before Nigel Farage entered the fray yesterday, Kemi Badenoch’s declaration that a newly elected Conservative Party would rewrite the Equality Act was the highlight of the UK General Election campaign. At very least, the promise to protect single-sex spaces by making ‘biological sex’ a protected characteristic put some clear water between the Tories and the Labour Party, which hastily labelled Badenoch’s intervention ‘a distraction’. As Lauren Smith has pointed out on spiked, Labour Party higher-ups might be happy to disregard sex-based rights, but they really do matter to women. Still, the Conservative Party’s talk of reforming the Equality Act now, having failed to act while in office, rings hollow.

Back in 2010, the newly elected Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition inherited the Equality Act from the previous Labour regime. It was one of the final pieces of legislation from the New Labour era. It came about after years of campaigning by activists and human-rights organisations. It brought together numerous existing laws such as the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976. The new combined act offered legal protection against discrimination on the basis of nine ‘protected characteristics’, including sex, race, disability, pregnancy and religion. It also defined discrimination as direct or indirect, and specified that this could include harassment and victimisation on the basis of these characteristics.

The Equality Act represented a shift from ‘formal’ to ‘substantive’ notions of equality. In other words, it passed into law the contested notion that equality does not mean treating people identically, but is instead about accommodating differences. This legal expectation was first introduced with the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and a similar approach was adopted in relation to race from 2000, following the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence. This move from equal treatment to what is now often called ‘equity’ was then formalised by the Equality Act.

The Equality Act did more than just expand definitions of ‘equality’ and ‘discrimination’. It offered legal protection to groups not previously covered by legislation. Most controversially, this included the protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’. A decade and a half ago, it was assumed that only a tiny number of people would seek gender-reassignment surgery and medically transition from one gender to another. Notably, the Equality Act does not offer protection for ‘transgender people’ as a distinct group. The thinking was that, post-transition, males would receive the protections afforded to women, and females who presented as men would not need any additional protections. The notion that large numbers of people would ‘self-identify’ as members of the opposite sex, especially without seeking a gender-recognition certificate, was back then unimaginable.

The world has changed significantly since the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act were introduced in the 1970s, and even since the introduction of the Equality Act just 14 years ago. Go back five decades and you find trade unions striving to keep women and ethnic-minority workers out of better paying jobs. Women were routinely sacked by their employers for becoming pregnant.

It is, of course, good news that sexism and racism are no longer prevalent. But the emergence of today’s woke capitalism has brought its own problems. Employers are now expected to make clear that they are actively anti-racist, anti-sexist and pro-LGBT rights. Diversity targets have been implemented so zealously that even organisations like the Royal Air Force have been found guilty of discriminating against white men. Diversity officers have replaced personnel managers and they are more likely to work with, rather than be pitched against, trade-union officials in promoting ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ (EDI) initiatives. In today’s workplace, pronoun badges, anti-racism workshops and unconscious-bias training allow managers unprecedented control over not just the time of employees, but also their consciences. Such initiatives divide workers and undermine solidarity.

The Equality Act 2010 has become the legal justification for the proliferation of EDI rules and training sessions in the workplace. Perhaps made fearful by campaigning organisations such as Stonewall, managers strive to be proactive in challenging indirect discrimination before it ever arises. Businesses and public-sector organisations, such as the NHS and local councils, have felt justified in spending huge sums of money on employing EDI officers or promoting woke projects, even though the Equality Act 2010 does not specify that any of this is necessary. Some local authorities spend very little on EDI and do not fall foul of the law. Yet for employers motivated to introduce such measures, the Equality Act provides ample justification for their actions.

None of this is new. Yet for 14 years, the Conservative government has not dared to challenge the Equality Act. Indeed, rather than abolishing the legislation altogether, or at the very least attempting fundamental reform, the Tories have, at times, embraced the thinking behind it. Former prime minister Theresa May sought to make it easier for people to change gender, which would force women to accommodate men in their spaces. Conservative MP Caroline Nokes has argued that going through the menopause should be included as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. When advocacy groups like Stonewall routinely over-interpreted the Equality Act in order to reorganise workplaces in line with trans ideology, Conservative ministers did little to rein them in. Even now, sections of the Conservative Party are berating Badenoch’s proposal to clarify the Equality Act for fuelling a ‘culture war’.

In response to 14 wasted years, tinkering with the definition of ‘sex’ is not enough. The Equality Act has outlived its purpose and needs to be scrapped altogether. Unfortunately, the Labour Party seems opposed even to minor reforms. As one of the last pieces of legislation passed by Labour when it was previously in office, it provides a good indication of what we can expect under a Keir Starmer government. We already know that Labour proposes to ‘simplify’ the process of changing gender and has promised to introduce a Race Equality Act to gold-plate EDI practices. These proposals will further undermine women’s rights and sow more social division.

In an age of identity politics and woke capitalism, the Equality Act is not just unnecessary – it has become a barrier to solidarity and equal rights.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and author of How Woke Won. She is a visiting fellow at MCC Budapest.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Identity Politics Politics UK


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