Labour’s race equality plans have been widely welcomed by many, especially those who know all too well how entrenched racial inequalities hold back ethnic minorities from fulfilling their potential, whether that be when accessing public services, education or in the workplace.
Employers are likely to accept the announcement to introduce reporting requirements on ethnicity pay gaps as a natural and fair extension of the existing gender pay gap reporting regime. And the collection of more data from key frontline organisations like the NHS is much needed and overdue if we are ever to understand the true scale of racial disparities.
All these steps are well worth doing to pursue our missions for the next Labour government to sustain the fastest economic growth in the G7 and break down barriers to opportunity.
It has been estimated by the Centre for Economics and Business Research that race discrimination costs the UK economy £2.6bn a year. Discrimination has an enormous impact on worker absenteeism, long-term sick leave and untold lost productivity.
But more than this, eradicating racial discrimination is fundamental to the Labour Party’s purpose and must be a bedrock of our next government.
Ethnic minority workers are less likely to enforce their rights
However, we are currently operating in a system where it is those who have been discriminated against that have to enforce their right not to be discriminated against under the Equality Act through the tribunals and courts, individually. At the cost of the public purse.
Take the workplace. The TUC has said that, of the 3.9 million BME employees in the UK, hundreds of thousands could be at risk of racist treatment and discrimination at work. As some of the lowest-paid and most vulnerable workers, ethnic minorities are less likely to enforce their rights.
We are now in a dire situation, where unless you can afford to privately pay for lawyers, there is little to be done to hold bad-faith actors to account under the Equality Act. Regardless of whether a public body or private employer perpetrated the discrimination.
Barriers exist to enforcing your rights under the Equality Act
According to the Resolution Foundation, an estimated 8.3 million people in the UK are affected by workplace discrimination. But only 295 discrimination cases were won at the Employment Tribunal last year. Only 49 of those were race discrimination cases.
Add to this the fact that access to legal aid support for discrimination issues is in abject crisis. A staggeringly meagre total of 36 ‘licensed discrimination legal aid certificates’ were completed and funded by the government last year.
This all speaks for itself; individual redress does not work. There are just currently too many barriers to being able to enforce your rights under the Equality Act.
To add to this, last week, the Tories announced a new consultation to reintroduce fees for bringing a legal claim in the Employment Tribunal. If introduced, this will mean one more barrier. Unless all these barriers are eliminated by the next Labour government, the problem will persist.
Labour must ensure all have access to an effective justice system
This is why it should fall on the state and not the workers to robustly enforce any new rights under the Race Equality Act to ensure its success.
Labour should explore enshrining the concept of ‘systemic discrimination’ into law to recognise widespread and institutional discrimination failings such as the Windrush scandal. The equalities watchdog, the EHRC, should be granted the power to enforce ‘systemic discrimination’ against public bodies, but also all organisations that fall short, where there are repeated failures to address racial inequality and discrimination.
Updating the Equality Act is an essential step in the right direction, but we must make sure that, in creating new rights, we are also taking adequate steps to ensure they are enforceable by those who need them.
The next Labour government must ensure that those who perpetuate racial discrimination in our society are effectively held to account. These announcements must be underpinned with a commitment that all will be able to access a key, but long-neglected public service: an effective and robust justice system, which works in ethnic minorities’ favour.