Largest ever review reveals ‘winners and losers’ in progress towards equality in Great Britain

Published: 03 Oct 2015

The most comprehensive review ever carried out on progress towards greater equality and human rights protection in Britain reveals that while for many life has become fairer over the past five years, for others progress has stalled and for some– in particular young people and poor White boys – life on many fronts has got worse.

Is Britain Fairer? draws on a wide range of major datasets and the Commission's own analysis to reveal how, as the country becomes more ethnically and religiously diverse than at any point in its history, new complexities mean many existing assumptions about which  of us encounter greater challenges may no longer hold to be true.

As Britain dealt with the impact of the biggest recession for several generations and implemented policies to revive economic growth and cut debt, the review highlights improvements in fairness as well as which inequalities have remained entrenched and where new demographic fault lines are opening up.

It shows which people were ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the five years since the Commission published its first review, but also how socio-economic status, age, ethnicity and other factors impact on experiences and outcomes for different groups of people at different stages of life.

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 - with their chances of a successful and prosperous career decreasing as a result.
  • 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 than they did five years ago.
  • Chinese and Indian pupils continue to perform better than all other ethnicities at school and a higher proportion of school leavers from ethnic minorities go on to higher education than white pupils.
  • Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have seen the biggest improvements in education and employment, 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 has been a significant increase in participation in 16-18 education and training, and a reduction in the percentage of the population with no qualifications
  • 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.
  • Legislative and policy reforms have been implemented to tackle serious human rights abuses such as modern slavery, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and data protection.

Laura Carstensen, EHRC Commissioner said:

'All our main political parties have put achieving greater equality and fairness at the heart of their agendas for the next five years. This wide-ranging, evidence-based review demonstrates how, while the British people demand a fairer society where everybody has an equal opportunity to make the best of their lives, whatever their background, our achievements still lag behind our aspirations in some areas.'
'While we have made important progress in many areas – and it is important to note and celebrate this - the gateways to opportunity that the Commission identified five years ago remain harder to pass through for some groups such as disabled people, those from poorer backgrounds and women over a certain age.'
'It’s great to see the barriers being lowered over the last five years for some people: but during the same period they’ve been raised higher for younger people in particular. Theirs are the shoulders on which the country will rely to provide for a rapidly ageing population, yet they have the worst economic prospects for several generations.'
'We welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment during his 2015 party conference speech to tackle inequality of opportunity and to champion aspiration. To achieve this objective, we need as a society to identify the most effective and efficient way of targeting our efforts to achieve the best possible results. Is Britain Fairer? provides a wealth of enormously valuable data and evidence to inform debate and priorities in embarking upon this national project.'

Is Britain Fairer? provides the independent evidence and benchmarks for reviewing the progress of social justice by drawing on large scale surveys and administrative data sets collected by public bodies, as well as evidence from regulators, inspectors and parliamentary committees, human rights monitoring bodies and NGOs. It summarises eight key challenges where we ask public policy makers to direct their efforts to achieve the best results in tackling inequality in areas including education, employment, standard of living, health, justice, security, identity and participation. 

Headlines of the review include the deepening inter-generational divide over the past five years. While - contrary to what many people believe - overall income inequality has declined over the period, a new divide has opened up: between the young and older people. During the recession and up to 2013, people under 34 experienced the steepest fall in incomes and (especially for those aged 16-24) employment, less access to decent housing and better-paid jobs, and deepening poverty.  Despite recent improvements they have yet to recover to pre-recession levels.  Young people have suffered in particular in comparison with older people, who have in general seen improvement in their lives.

Poor White boys in particular suffer a combination of disadvantage. Being poor now has a far more negative impact on the education of White children than it does for any other ethnic group. Poor White boys suffer higher rates of exclusion from school and achieve the lowest academic results – making them less likely to enter higher education and therefore more likely to end up in lower-paid, insecure jobs. Men aged 45-49 now suffer the highest rates of suicide – a figure which has increased significantly over the last five years.

Life for some ethnic groups has improved dramatically. The Pakistani and Bangladeshi group saw some of the greatest improvements of any group across educational attainment, health, employment and level of poverty, although these improvements tended to be from a much lower starting point, and they still do not fare as well as White people across these areas of life. Chinese and Indian students have continued to perform better than all other ethnicities at school and, overall, a higher proportion of ethnic minority pupils goes on to higher education than White pupils.

The review shows that Britain continues to become generally more tolerant and open-minded. However it notes that the target of hate crime and discriminatory treatment may have switched from some groups to others.  There are some suggestions that this is in response to the economic downturn and subsequent pressure on public services, to increased religious and ethnic diversity and in reaction to world events.

Since 2010 public acceptance of lesbian, gay and bisexual sexual orientations has continued to improve alongside the legalisation of marriage of same-sex couples. The review also points to a reduction in the stigma attached to people suffering poor mental health in England and Wales. However, alongside this, the period saw increases in reports of Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and transgender hate crime.

The evidence highlights despite improving educational performance for girls and women - who now outperform boys and men at school and in degree-level qualifications - the gender pay gap remains stubborn, and widens the older women get.

The review also notes that positive steps are being taken to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery; legislative and policy changes have strengthened the approach towards 'honour based' killings; protection for 17-year olds in police custody has been increased, and there has been a strengthening of the obligation to investigate deaths for which the State may have some degree of responsibility.

The data raises 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 gap in educational attainment between children with special educational needs and those without has widened over the period covered by the report.

Analysis in the review identifies eight key challenges for policy makers, statutory bodies and other groups to address over the coming years. In particular this includes the need for more comprehensive and better quality evidence to improve future assessments of progress and provide better support for policy development. At the moment information black holes are rendering some vulnerable groups in society invisible, such as the growing number of people over the age of 80, transgender people and Gypsies and Travellers.

The Commission also launches today the public consultation on its Strategic Plan for 2016-2019. This sets out the Commission's key objectives for the next three years, partly in response to Is Britain Fairer?, and how it will contribute to tackling discrimination, improving equality of opportunity and promoting human rights.

Notes to editors

Read Is Britain Fairer?

For more press information and interviews contact the Commission’s media office on 0161 829 8102, out of office hours 07767 272 818.

The Equality Act 2006 gave the Equality and Human Rights Commission the duty to report regularly on the extent to which equality and human rights are improving in Britain. The Commission published How Fair is Britain? (a review of equality) in 2010, followed by the Human Rights Review in 2012. This in 2015 is the Commission’s first report on progress.

Challenges highlighted in the report

  • Improving the evidence and the ability to assess how fair Britain is
  • Raising standards and closing attainments gaps in education
  • Encouraging fair recruitment, development and reward in employment
  • Supporting improved living conditions in cohesive communities
  • Encouraging democratic participation and ensure access to justice
  • Improving access to mental health service and support for those experiencing (or at risk of experiencing) poor mental health
  • Preventing abuse, neglect and ill treatment in case and detention
  • Tackling targeted harassment and abuse of people who share particular protected characteristics

Read the Commission's Strategic Plan