The government has been accused of “shirking” its responsibility to tackle racial and gender inequalities after it emerged ministers were planning to steer the UK’s equalities policy away from “fashionable” issues on race, sexuality and gender.
Women and equalities minister Liz Truss is set to announce a “new approach” to the government’s equality policy in a speech on Thursday, arguing that the debate has been “dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices”, and by “those who believe people are defined by their protected characteristic”.
Ms Truss will reportedly outline a move away from quotas, targets, unconscious bias training and diversity statements to improve equality, dismissing them as “tools of the Left” that “do nothing to fix systems” – and instead set out a fresh “Conservative values” approach based on “freedom, choice, opportunity, individual humanity and dignity”.
Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova said the remarks amounted to a “gratuitous provocation” from a government that “consistently refuses to face up to its responsibilities and the widening inequality it has caused”.
She added:“ When Liz Truss dismisses ‘fashionable’ causes she actually dismisses the devastating impact of discrimination and unfairness in peoples’ day to day lives.
“This year has highlighted how important it is for people to come together. Instead of looking for new ways to divide communities and pining for an era of Thatcherite individualism, the Tories should focus on fixing the structural inequality that holds people back.”
Campaigners accused Ms Truss of failing to listen to communities and “shirking” their responsibilities on tackling equality, arguing that addressing poverty and inequalities in the UK should not mean “pitting gender and race on one side against class on the other”.
Minnie Rahman, public affairs and campaigns officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said it was “deeply concerning” that the equalities minister was appearing to “reject” the approach of listening to communities.
Accusing the government of being “well out of step with the public mood”, she said: “At a time when people of colour are dying at disproportionately higher rates from Covid 19, and a year in which millions of people joined a historic anti-racist movement, it is unacceptable for a government minister to try and shirk their responsibilities on tackling equality.
“We know that when government ministers refuse to listen to the communities and individuals affected by their policies, shocking mistakes are made and lives are destroyed, as was the case with the Windrush scandal.”
She added: “This mentality reveals a deeply institutionalised lack of awareness around racism that is entrenched in the Conservative Party. If you want to tackle poverty you need tackle racism.”
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of the Women’s Budget Group, a network of academic researchers and policy experts that analyses government policy from a gender perspective, said addressing poverty and inequalities based on class was not an “either or question pitting gender and race on one side against class on the other”.
“If the government is serious about addressing poverty, they need to recognise women, disabled people and people of colour are more likely to be poor,” she added.
Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre, the leading national umbrella organisation for the women’s sector in the UK, said Ms Truss’s comments were “misinformed” and illustrated a “gulf between the government and women’s real-life day-to-day hardship”.
She added: “Inequality has been around forever and we have been gathering the evidence and presenting it to various different governments and still they fail to address the underlying inequalities that women experience.
“The government must address real, life-threatening, structural inequalities based upon sex and race.”
An analysis of racial inequality statistics by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in October found a “worrying picture” in areas including employment, education, crime and living standards.
The findings showed that unemployment rates are significantly higher for ethnic minorities, at 13 per cent compared with 6 per cent for white people, while black workers with degrees earn 23 per cent less on average than white workers.
They also found that Black Caribbean and Mixed White/Black Caribbean children had rates of permanent exclusion about three times that of the pupil population as a whole, while rates of prosecution and sentencing for Black people were three times higher than for White people.
With regards to living standards, the EHRC found that 31 per cent of Pakistani or Bangladeshi people live in overcrowded accommodation, while for Black people the figure is 29 per cent and for White people it is 8 per cent.
Campaigners have meanwhile warned progress on tackling the gender pay gap has substantially slowed under the Conservatives. Last year’s gender pay gap was 17.3 per cent, which equates to women being paid an average of roughly 83p for every £1 men made.
In fact, Ms Truss’ own department has the second worst gender pay gap in Whitehall, figures released this week have shown. Women in the Department for International Trade (DIT) earn on average 15.9 per cent less than their male peers – a year-on-year increase of 3.4 per cent.
In her speech on Thursday, Ms Truss will say: “Now is the time to root the equality debate in the real concerns people face, delivering quality housing, cutting commute times, improving public transport, ending discrimination in our offices, factories and shop floors and improving our schools so every child has the same chances in life.
“It is our duty to deliver, because if right-thinking people do not lead the fight for fairness, then it will be led by those whose ideas do not work.”
She will also announce that the Equality Hub, which sits within the Cabinet Office, will relocate to the north of England to “further demonstrate the government’s commitment to levelling up the whole country and listening to the voices of everyone in the UK”.
Home secretary Priti Patel backed Mr Truss’s plans on Thursday morning, telling Times Radio: “We’re focusing on the people’s priorities – we shouldn’t be indulging in fashionable issues of political correctness.”