by Rebecca Hilsenrath
Published: 30 Nov 2015
Fairness is not just one of our most quintessentially British values but probably the most contested word in our political lexicon.
If ever proof were needed, this week’s events in Westminster make this plain.
Whether it is the lively debate about tax credits and in-work poverty, how we respond to the refugee crisis or a raft of recent Government announcements on equality, fairness is probably the most hotly-debated issue in our society.
All our main political parties have put achieving greater equality and fairness at the heart of their agendas for the next five years. The party conference season underlined how the principle of equality has risen above the left-right divide. The big conundrum for Britain is no longer whether we need a fairer society but how to deliver it, and this in itself is an important and profoundly positive step forward.
In a tight financial climate and with the continuing controversy over major changes such as welfare reform, the need for intelligent, evidence-based decision-making has never been greater.
Better evidence allows for better discussion and better decisions. Too often these incredibly complex national conversations are long on partisan assertion or biased interpretation and short on facts. In this context, even policy makers, never mind the public, struggle to understand the real picture.
That is why the Equality and Human Rights Commission is today publishing the most comprehensive review to date of progress towards greater equality and human rights protection in Britain.
Our overview report is backed up by 1,840 pages of independent, authoritative evidence and is based on thousands of different sources. It covers 10 major areas of everyday life, including education, employment, standard of living, health, justice, security, identity and participation.
It reveals that while for many life has become fairer over the past five years, for others progress has stalled and for some it has got worse.
Headlines of the report include:
- White pupils from poorer backgrounds, especially boys, suffered the worst start in life as they continued to fall further behind every other ethnic group at school
- Britons have become more tolerant in general of sexual orientation and racial diversity but less tolerant in general of religious diversity, with an increase in anti-Semitic and Islamophobic hate crime
- Younger people suffered the greatest drop in income and employment compared to older age groups and now face greater barriers to achieving economic independence and success
- Legislative and policy reforms have been implemented to tackle serious human rights abuses such as modern slavery, forced marriage and female genital mutilation
- Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have seen the biggest improvements in education and employment although they still lag behind on most indicators, while Black workers, who were previously one of the better paid ethnic groups, suffered one of the largest falls in wages
- Girls now outperform boys at school and university, but women still suffer a pay gap which increases as they enter the 'sandwich years', juggling caring for children and parents
- There are concerns about the experience of disabled people, with too many being locked out of mainstream society through poverty and isolation and at times struggling to get the support needed to live independently
The report identifies eight ‘roadblocks’ to equality of opportunity to be tackled by policy makers, public bodies, NGOs and other groups.
This includes the need for more comprehensive and better quality evidence. At the moment information black holes are rendering some vulnerable groups in society invisible through limited data. This includes people over 80, transgender people and victims of bullying at school.
The Commission also begins consultation today on its draft strategic plan. Our core mission is to be a catalyst for change to improve people’s lives. We always strive to be a respected and authoritative expert organisation, using our powers strategically and based on robust evidence to drive change and achieve maximum impact. Our role as an independent national expert body - with clear statutory powers and positioned to help society navigate this complex debate - has never been more important to achieving further progress.
Britain has already changed. It is a source of optimism that we no longer live in a country where most people believe that equality of opportunity is a burden to the nation, or an expensive luxury. We still have further to go but most businesses, politicians and the public understand that equality and human rights are essential to both fairness and economic growth. We look forward to being at the heart of this national effort and debate to unlock talent across all communities. It is essential that we do so in partnership with others across society who share this responsibility with us.
Britain has changed already but, as today’s report underlines, in many areas the hard work has only just begun.