Britain's conflicting attitudes towards equality

Published: 11 Oct 2018

Three quarters of people in Britain agree that there should be equality for all, but veiled prejudice and negative attitudes towards others are still prevalent in our society, says the UK equality body.

An extensive survey from the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that despite three-quarters (74%) of people agreeing that there should be equality for all groups, 42% of Britons have experienced some form of prejudice in the last 12 months. There is also resistance to improving equal opportunities for groups such as immigrants and Muslims.

The survey revealed that more people openly expressed negative feelings towards Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (44%), Muslims (22%) and transgender people (16%), than towards gay, lesbian and bisexual people (9%), people aged over 70 (4%) and disabled people with a physical impairment (3%).

Discrimination was seen to vary in seriousness depending on which protected group it related to: 70% saw prejudice on the basis of race as a somewhat, very or extremely serious issue, but only 44% thought the same about age-related prejudice.

The survey also highlighted the existence of more subtle forms of prejudice, such as patronising attitudes or stereotyping. For example only 25% rated physically impaired people as capable and 34% viewed them with pity. 

Attitudes towards mental health also presented a complicated picture. Nearly two thirds suggested that efforts to provide equal opportunities for those with mental health conditions had ‘not gone far enough’ (63%), but a quarter expressed discomfort with having a person with a mental health condition as their boss (25%) or as a potential family member (29%).

David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

'It is encouraging that so many people agree that equality should be for everyone, but it’s disappointing that a number of others believe that protections have gone too far for certain groups. It’s very clear that some people are still conflicted about equality and that prejudices still risk fostering discrimination in Britain.

'It's disturbing that some people feel comfortable expressing negative views about others – especially members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller, Muslim and transgender communities. Openly voicing negative attitudes can hinder constructive debate about the barriers people face and creates divisions and mistrust in society.

'Understanding people’s attitudes and the extent of prejudice in all its forms is key to unlocking the barriers that may hold many people back. This report sets out a workable model that we believe the government should build on to understand the current state of prejudice and discrimination in Britain.

'One person's gain does not mean that others lose out. If everyone gets a fair chance in life, we all thrive.'

Other findings include:

  • around a third of British adults felt that efforts to provide equal opportunities had gone ‘too far’ in the case of immigrants (37%) and Muslims (33%)
  • around one-fifth of respondents said they would feel uncomfortable if either an immigrant or a Muslim person lived next door (19% and 18% respectively), and 14% said they would feel uncomfortable if a transgender person lived next door
  • in the past year 70% of Muslims surveyed experienced religion-based prejudice, 64% of people from a black ethnic background experienced race-based prejudice, 61% of people with a mental health condition experienced disability-based prejudice and 46% of lesbian, gay or bisexual people experienced homophobic prejudice
  • those under 35 are more likely to experience age prejudice than are those aged 35 to 54 or those aged over 55 years (39% compared with 22% and 20% respectively)

The report will sit alongside evidence for our most comprehensive review of the state of equality and human rights in Britain. Due to be published later this month, ‘Is Britain Fairer? 2018’ measures how far the country has come in creating a fair and equal society for all, assessing progress in education, health, living standards, justice and security, work and participation in politics and public life.

Notes to editors

  • we commissioned this research from NatCen and it was carried out by the University of Kent, Centre for the Study of Group Processes and Birkbeck, University of London
  • the extensive survey was the first national survey examining the extent of prejudice in over a decade. It measures prejudice and discrimination in Britain experienced by people with a wide range of protected characteristics: age, disability, race, sex, religion or belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, and gender reassignment
  • the survey heard from almost 3,000 people to understand their experiences of prejudice and attitudes towards different groups
  • findings relating to experiences of discrimination among Muslims, people from a black ethnic background, people with a mental health condition and lesbian, gay and bisexual people use data from an additional smaller non-probability survey (a survey targeted at particular groups rather than a random sample of participants). The non-probability survey was carried out alongside the main survey to capture experiences of discrimination among minority groups who may otherwise not be well represented in the survey. It is important to be aware of this when interpreting the data

Press contact details

For more press information contact the Commission's media office on:

0161 829 8102