Partner and practice lead of the Thompsons Solicitors trade union law group, Iain Birrell, comments on criticism by the committee
A Women and Equalities Committee report has criticised the government for failing to enforce the law on age discrimination.
Iain Birrell, partner and practice lead of the Thompsons Solicitors trade union law group, comments on the report, the government’s erosion of important anti-discrimination structures in recent years, and what the future holds for the issue under a post-Brexit Conservative government.
As retirement ages are pushed back, pensions are devalued and job security is being eroded, we all have an interest in resisting age discrimination in the workplace. This call to arms by the Women and Equalities Committee is therefore both timely and welcome. As with all such rallying cries much depends on resource and political will, but despite the warm words in the report about the latter many of the government’s initiatives are figure-leaf measures only, and distract from the government’s broader erosion of key anti-discrimination structures since the coalition government onwards. Resourcing is a key issue and this again shows the government’s priorities: by March 2017 the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s expenditure had reduced by 68% since its first full year in operation. Expenditure reduced from £63.6 million in 2008-09 to £20.3 million in 2015-16. Expenditure increased slightly between 2014-15 and 2015-16 because the Commission secured additional discretionary programme funding, but as part of the 2015 Spending Review, the Commission’s budget was planned to be reduced by a further 25% by 2019. Secretary of State approval is still required for expenditure from the discretionary programme funding arrangements where it is in excess of £750,000, on capacity-building work or where there is overlap with DfE/GEO responsibilities or joint projects with other government departments. The merry-go-round therefore returns to the issue of government will.
Will Theresa May have the time or political support to take this forward? It seems unlikely. It also seems unlikely since the EHRC has a statutory duty to protect and promote human rights which threatens to put the Commission directly at odds with a post-Brexit Conservative party whose manifesto pledge was:
"We will not bring the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law. We will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act while the process of Brexit is underway but we will consider our human rights legal framework when the process of leaving the EU concludes. We will remain signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights for the duration of the next parliament.”