Research, recommendations and landmark legal cases: 2017 in review

by David Isaac

Published: 21 Dec 2017

2017 has been a busy year for the Commission.

When I took up the role of Chair lots of people told me that the Commission didn't use its powers enough to drive change.

In the year in which we celebrated our 10th anniversary, I'm confident that we used our legal powers more than ever – but that we also did many of the things we have always done well – collecting data and acting as an independent expert by gathering data to educate and influence.

Particular highlights include Doug Paulley’s case against FirstGroup, which is of enormous importance to thousands of wheelchair users

In 2017 we did more enforcement work and initiated and intervened in more legal cases. Particular highlights include Doug Paulley’s successful case against FirstGroup, which is of enormous importance to thousands of wheelchair users. Previously many disabled people were often unable to travel on buses because wheelchair spaces were occupied. The Supreme Court has now clarified that the ‘first come, first served’ policies no longer applies and that priority access should be given to disabled people. 

We also provided expert legal evidence in another important Supreme Court case – UNISON v The Lord Chancellor, which found that employment tribunal fees were unlawful and discriminatory because they were preventing people from accessing justice when they had been discriminated against, and ordered that they must be refunded. The result has already had a significant impact on those who need access to tribunals to enforce their rights.

Access to justice is also vital in other legal contexts too. To allow others to enforce their rights this year, we have also run two successful pilot programmes. In the first we offered funding for legal cases involving disabled people’s rights in employment and access to services. The second pilot has allowed those discriminated against in educational settings to receive legal support. As a result of both pilots, the Commission has been able to assist over 100 applicants who were otherwise unlikely to have been able to take action. Our work will help both the individuals involved or help clarify the law to improve the lives of thousands of people who experience similar difficulties.

Other important areas for our legal team have been our work to make football stadia more accessible for disabled people, challenging the discriminatory actions of landlords and threatening to take legal action to stop other unlawful activities. From talking to our stakeholders, it's clear that few people have any idea how many pre-enforcement letters we write to enforce the public sector equality duty or to ensure compliance with the Equality Act. I’m pleased to say that as a result of this work, we do manage to change behaviours – usually without people knowing about it!

2017 has been a year of significant events, to which we have responded quickly and authoritatively

As the Government works towards making Brexit a reality, we have supplied expert briefings on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill as it passes through Parliament. We are working with parliamentarians to ensure that there is no diminution of people’s rights after we leave the EU and we are doing our utmost to ensure that this country remains a global leader on equality and human rights. This approach is one that we highlighted internationally when I spoke at the UK's Universal Periodic Review in Geneva in October.  

More recent events have served as further reminders of the considerable challenges ahead of us in the fight for equality and human rights. On 14 June 2017, 71 people died tragically in the Grenfell Tower fire in homes managed by the State. As a result we have launched a project to comment on the public inquiry and the evidence it hears from an equality and human rights perspective, and we will make recommendations in April 2018. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be a pressing and concerning issue. Given our regulatory role, we have written to large employers across Britain to ask them to provide evidence on the safeguards they have in place to prevent this and produced guidance to help all businesses deal with it effectively. To help us find out what is happening, we launched a survey for those who have experienced or witnessed workplace sexual harassment to ensure that the voices of those who have been affected shape the solutions we propose. 

Sadly women are still paid less than men for doing the same work. In August, we published a pay gaps strategy for tackling gender, disability and ethnicity pay gaps. We will do more work on this next year to see our recommendations become reality. The pressing need to reduce pay gaps for ethnic minorities forms a core part of our Roadmap to race equality, which calls on Government to introduce a comprehensive and long-term race strategy in the light of its Race Disparity Audit.

Much has been achieved this year but I know that there is still a lot more to do

November 2017 also saw the announcement of the Budget. We are very concerned about the impact changes to government spending are having on people with certain protected characteristics. We wrote to the Prime Minister ahead of the Budget to set out our findings on the combined effect of tax and social security systems. For example, families with a disabled adult will see their income reduced by about £2,500 a year, and if the family also includes a disabled child they will lose £5,500 a year. We will publish our final report in March.

And last but not least, we have strengthened our evidence base over the last year to ensure our policy recommendations and strategic decision-making are as robust as possible.

We developed a new single Measurement Framework to help us gather and analyse data on equality and human rights progress through our ‘Is Britain Fairer?’ reports. This work is relevant to the whole of Great Britain but I'm keen to ensure that we don't overlook the excellent work that we’ve undertaken in Scotland and Wales this year. Among other things, we successfully persuaded a Scottish Highlands Bed and Breakfast to remove the phrase ‘heterosexual friendly’ from its website on the grounds that it discouraged LGBT people from using their services. In Wales, over 20 employers – including Welsh Government – have now signed our Working Forward pledge to make their workplaces the best they can be for pregnant women and new mothers.

I am confident that in 2017 the Commission did more than ever to promote equality and protect human rights. I do not underestimate the challenges ahead but I remain as determined that we should use our unique powers and position to drive greater change. Much has been achieved this year but I know that there is still a lot more to do.

Happy Christmas and best wishes from us all at the Commission for the New Year.