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Why the EHRC wants to hear about your discrimination cases

It has never been more important for the country to have a strong, confident and effective equalities regulator. A cursory look at social media tells you why. Whether it’s allegations of sexual harassment in Parliament, or of racism at the Football Association, or the gender pay gap at the BBC, discrimination is everywhere.

As we might expect, the most overt and crude forms of discriminatory behaviour and harassment have been widely condemned. Following revelations about its recent charity dinner, the President’s Club was denounced in Parliament, disavowed by the charities it supported and shut down almost immediately.

At the same time, our research suggests that disturbing attitudes towards some forms of unlawful behaviour remain widespread. A recent survey by YouGov on behalf of the EHRC, showed that many British employers are decades behind the law when it comes to recruiting women: nearly six in ten private sector employers agreed that a woman should have to disclose that she is pregnant during the recruitment process. So it’s not at all surprising that workplace discrimination problems aren’t confined to the cases that hit the press. They are the tip of a giant and resilient iceberg.

Pay gaps extend beyond the BBC and beyond gender. Recent figures calculate the ethnic minority pay gap at 5.7% and the disability pay gap at 13.6% across Britain. Look further and we see that disabled people are less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people. The causes are complex, but these are real inequalities that need to be addressed. We also know from new research for the EHRC that will be released in March that sexual harassment in the workplace remains a significant problem for very many people, not just those in politics or the film industry.

Against this backdrop, some workers struggle even to establish that they are protected from discrimination in law. The growth of the “gig economy” has thrust questions over the employment status of those with atypical work relationships to centre stage. And the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill removes from law the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which protects rights important to all of us, including protections for workers.

EHRC: our role and remit

These are just some of the reasons why the EHRC‘s role is vital. Established by the Equality Act 2006, the EHRC is Britain’s independent national equality body and national human rights institution.

Our remit covers equality and human rights issues across a wide spectrum, including education, access to services and participation, justice and detention, living standards and health. For example, we are highlighting the human rights and equality dimension of the Grenfell Tower fire, we are working to improve disabled access at Premier League football grounds, and our Brexit work seeks to make sure Britain’s status as a world leader on equality and human rights can be maintained and strengthened after we leave the EU. But employment issues remain very high on our agenda.

We drive improvement in many different ways: by providing information to help people understand their rights and obligations, using our expertise to influence public policy, monitoring the effectiveness of equality and human rights law and enabling organisations to achieve positive change. For example, we’re calling on organisations of all sizes to join Working Forward. This is our nationwide campaign, backed by some of the UK’s leading businesses and industry bodies, to make workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new parents.

Our website is a rich source of advice and guidance, not just for individuals and business, but also for advisers. We’ve recently launched a legal helpline for the advice sector, solicitors, trade unions, ombudsman schemes and other organisations providing advice to individuals. EHRC Adviser Support helps to ensure that these agencies have access to high quality advice on equality and human rights issues from EHRC experts.

Enforcement

All of these functions serve to challenge discrimination in different ways, but importantly, we also have strong enforcement powers to protect people against serious and systemic abuses of their rights. We can conduct investigations, enter into binding agreements and enforce compliance with the public sector equality duty. We can fund individual legal cases of strategic importance to clarify or reinforce people’s rights, or challenge policies or practices that cause significant disadvantage, sometimes across a whole sector.

We can intervene in ongoing legal proceedings to make additional submissions to help the court. We did this successfully in the landmark case of UNISON v Lord Chancellor, in which the Supreme Court agreed that employment tribunal fees were unlawful and discriminatory. We can make applications to court to restrain unlawful acts and we have power to take action against employers who may have made unlawful enquiries about a work applicant’s disability or health.

In relation to pay gaps, we’ve recently consulted on our planned approach to enforcing the Equality Act 2010 (Gender Pay Gap Information) Regulations 2017. These regulations require employers with 250 employees or more to publish gender pay gap data every year. Reporting helps organisations understand the size and causes of their pay gaps and identify any issues that need to be addressed. If companies fail to publish their data, we will take enforcement action to compel them to do so.

Get in touch

If you are a legal representative or adviser dealing with discrimination issues, please get in touch.

Of course, we can’t promise to get involved every time. We focus our limited resources on areas where we think we can have the most impact. Currently, in the employment sphere, we are prioritising cases relating to religion or belief, discrimination in recruitment and career progression (particularly disability and race), the “gig” economy and employment status, and access to support, assistance and justice for victims of modern slavery. We are also running a legal support programme funding cases on discrimination in education, housing and social security.  But even where we can’t help directly, we’ll use the information you give us to inform our future priorities.

The EHRC’s work is vital to building a fairer Britain. Whether you work in Parliament, the FA, the BBC, or any other workplace anywhere in the country, we think you should be able to work with dignity and respect, free from discrimination. We know we won’t achieve this alone but with your help, we can make a difference.

Elizabeth Prochaska

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