The government’s Equalities Review

First published: 11 June 2006

The upturn of struggle in the imperialist countries after World War II, accelerating for a decade after 1968, brought more into the light of day the real oppressions and discrimination that existed beneath the illusory proclamations of equal rights by capitalist society. The actual facts of inequality of pay and job opportunities for women compared to men, of legal discrimination against women, of discriminatory moral codes, of pervasive racism, of discrimination against gays and lesbians, the shameful exclusion and discrimination against disabled people and many of the real facts of society were openly discussed. More systematic struggles began to be waged against them. The rise of the international women’s liberation movement, of the black struggle, and of the fight for gay and lesbian rights, were among the most powerful manifestations of this.

In the US the principle of dealing with the reality of oppression and discrimination, as opposed to proclaiming purely illusory ‘equal rights’, was partially established in the legal right of specific forms of positive action for those who suffered aspects of oppression and discrimination.

In Britain, where the black population was a much smaller proportion of society than in the US, and which was a less developed capitalist society, the struggle to win the legal right to tackle real discrimination via positive action was not won. A non-existent ‘equality of opportunity’ continued to be proclaimed as the official ideology and goal. However a partial step forward was secured in winning the establishment of a series of state supported bodies looking at various aspects of oppression and discrimination – these included the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

One aspect of the period of reaction that has developed in Britain since 1979, in parallel with that in other imperialist countries, is therefore an ideological backlash against acknowledgement and analysis of the reality of oppression and discrimination, of the concepts necessary to analyse it, and against the self-organisation of those suffering it. The aim is to abolish legal acknowledgement of the facts of oppression and discrimination in capitalist society and instead proclaim that ‘equal rights’ either already exist or are rapidly being created. As part of this reactionary drive the Labour government is now proposing to abolish de facto the bodies that were formed to investigate and combat discrimination.

Such an ideological offensive runs parallel with the reality of deepening attempts to increase discrimination – particularly regarding racism – and a push to reduce the parameters of the welfare state both in general and in particular as it affects oppressed groups. One of the most vivid manifestations of this is the media’s continuous Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-asylum seeker and similar campaigns.

Regarding gender, formal proclamations of ‘equal rights’ are in fact now frequently used to attack the position of women. For example, if Lord Turner’s proposals to raise the state retirement age to 68 are implemented, the age at which women will be entitled to qualify for a pension will over the last decades have been raised by eight years from 60 to 68 – which is then presented as a step forward for women’s equality! Meanwhile the government is simultaneously failing to take any serious action to address inequalities such as the gender pay gap and the continuing reality of badly paid part-time work for the millions of women who are simultaneously juggling work and childcare demands.

At the legal and ideological level the aim of this offensive is to redefine, to ‘re-narrow’, what the law and society and consider to be discrimination and inequality. For example if people can be encouraged to believe that inequality is gradually disappearing of its own accord – and forget realities such as the widening gap between rich and poor, the 40% gender pay gap affecting part-time women workers and the barrage of racist anti-immigration and asylum-reducing measures introduced in recent years – then those engaged in self-organisation to campaign against their oppression can be redefined as ‘vested interest groups’. Or even that people who campaign in such a way are somehow responsible for provoking prejudice and discrimination.

A classic example of such a manoeuvre is the present government’s Discrimination Law Review. This is the vehicle by which a Single Equality Act (SEA) is supposed to be crafted – the commitment to such an Act was inserted at the last minute into Labour’s manifesto before the last election. The campaign is well and truly underway to limit the content of the SEA to what business, particularly the CBI, will tolerate. The aim is to lower expectations and deal with any resulting opposition to the proposals.

One aspect of this offensive was shown in the legal abolition of all the existing statutory equality commissions in the government’s recently passed Equality Act. They were replaced with a single new body, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). This is due to start functioning in late 2007. The EOC and the DRC will disappear at the same time. The CRE has a stay of execution of two years – but unless there is a massive campaign of pressure it will shortly afterwards be abolished, and statutory responsibility for upholding anti-racist law will fall to the CEHR.

The CEHR will have very little money, a formally reduced role in supporting individuals using the law, and a so-called integrated ‘cross strand’ structure which means there is no place in it for organising on the basis of specific oppressions such as racism or against women. Neither is its board of commissioners under any obligation to be representative of women or black people.

Those who campaigned for a representative structure were attacked for defending ‘vested interests’ – presumably such as being black, and therefore prone to racist attacks and discrimination, or being female and receiving lower average pay than men. On this type of logic, Jews protesting against being exterminated by the Nazis were clearly representatives of a ‘vested interest’.

The government in February 2005 as part of this process established an Equalities Review. Its work was supposed to provide an analysis of the causes of inequality and inform the Discrimination Law Review. In reality it is the latest attempt to deny and ‘redefine’ reality when it comes to discrimination and inequality.

Trevor Phillips chairs the Equalities Review and the other members were Sir Robert Kerslake (the chief executive of Sheffield Council), Carol Lake (of JP Morgan), Dame Judith Mayhew-Jonas (former head of the Corporation of London) and Nick Pearce of the Institute for Public Policy Research – who resigned before the Interim Report was even published. Phillips is also urging the establishment of a new Commission for Citizenship and Integration, which essentially would advocate policy based on the factually wrong premise that British society is becoming more segregated by race and that this is the cause of racism and community problems (the so-called ‘sleepwalking to segregation’ thesis).

The report of the Equalities Review argued for a narrowing of what should be understood to be inequality and how it comes about. Inequality is allegedly the result of a ‘vulnerability’ meeting a ‘trigger episode’. Structural discrimination and disadvantage don’t feature – presumably because their reality cannot be accepted as that would blow apart the ideology of the Equalities Review.

For example if you are an African-Caribbean boy then going to school might be a ‘trigger episode’. Racism in the education system is not examined, but the idea that your ‘Home Learning Environment’ might be the problem is given pages of consideration.

All this requires ignoring the factual evidence showing patterns of inequality. This is accomplished by statistical fraud. The report argues against comparing ‘average outcomes’ by social group – for example women’s average pay compared to men’s. This is because it argues there might be wider gaps within a group than between them. So there might be a very few rich black people and a lot of very poor black people but because the gap between the top and bottom might be bigger than the average gap between white and black male workers the vast under-representation of black men or women among the higher paid and the reality of the pay gaps by gender and ethnicity should be ignored.

In fact, it is well understood that all such statistical groups contain a wide distribution around an average (statistical mean) or mid-point (median). Well known statistical techniques exist to analyse this. The types of argument in the Equalities Review are therefore pure chicanery – facts must not be allowed to get in the way of capitalist ideology!

Having denied the facts of the situation, it is then possible to argue that the Discrimination Law Review really doesn’t need to do very much – which of course is the real aim of such an intellectual fraud. It is concluded that there is no need for stronger legal equality duties on the private sector – where most people work – no need for positive action, no need even to strengthen procurement so that public authorities are mandated to use their legal powers to promote equality when contracting services. Even extending equality duties in the public sector should be ‘rigorously reviewed’.

Naturally such factual fraud and omission of anti-discriminatory proposals will be exposed by anyone seriously interested in the real removal of discrimination. So it is logical that the report explicitly caricatures and attacks anti-discrimination campaigners – extending the kind of language used against those who tried to introduce representative principles into the CEHR.

It is necessary to fight against this Review. It will produce a final report later this year. The first draft of a Single Equality Act – in the form of a Green Paper – is also due in June, from the Discrimination Law Review.

This Equalities Review’s report represents an accommodation to prejudice.

Like all such accommodation by the government – being ‘tough on asylum seekers’, playing to the Tory media on law and order, etc – it will merely give succour to reaction. It is also classic case of the way in which capitalist ideology is used to mask the reality of capitalist society.