Following the referendum vote in the United Kingdom (UK) in favour of leaving the European Union (EU) last Thursday, the Equal Rights Trust urges the UK government to take urgent and effective measures to tackle inequality and respond robustly to discrimination. The Equal Rights Trust has noted with concern the centrality of inequality and discrimination to events and discourses in the lead up to and aftermath of the referendum.
Speaking on behalf of the Trust, Bob Niven, Vice Chair said:
“It’s clear that public anger at growing social and economic inequality was a major factor in this vote. Yet there is now a real risk that the vote actually fuels inequality, increasing race-motivated crime and opening up equality legislation to amendment. The UK government must tackle the inequalities which have inflamed public anger, and take strong enforcement action in cases of hate crime.”
The Equal Rights Trust calls on the UK government to take four immediate steps to strengthen and safeguard enjoyment of the rights to equality and non-discrimination:
1. Tackle socio-economic inequality: The referendum took place in the context of rising inequality in the UK, a country which has amongst the highest levels of income inequality of all developed economies. Fiscal policies pursued since 2010 have hit the poorest in society far harder than those at the top of the income spectrum, while social inequalities have widened as funding for public services has been cut. A diagnosis of the drivers of the result is just beginning. However, demographic data indicates that areas with lower levels of education and lower median incomes voted most strongly to leave the EU and anger at socio-economic inequality seems to have been a significant factor for many of those who voted for the UK to leave the EU. The Equal Rights Trust urges the UK government to adopt policy measures to reverse the increasing socio-economic inequality in the country, thus fulfilling its obligations under international law and addressing some of the root causes of public anger in so many parts of the country.
2. Combat hate speech and hate crime: The campaign for the UK to the leave the EU focused heavily on the argument that this would allow the country to limit immigration, which was portrayed as the cause of strains on social services and access to key rights such as work and housing. The Trust is deeply concerned by evidence that this rhetoric may have exacerbated division: in recent days, there have been reports of an increase in anti-immigrant and racist abuse and hate crime. The Equal Rights Trust urges the UK government to take decisive and swift enforcement action in response to reports of hate crime, and calls on all public figures to refrain from inflammatory statements.
3. Guarantee that the UK equality law framework will be protected: Equality law in the UK is stronger today as a result of the UK’s membership of the EU. For example, the first statutory prohibitions of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, religion or belief, and age in the UK were introduced in order to comply with the EU Employment Equality Directive. The Equal Rights Trust calls on the UK government to guarantee that, in the event of the UK’s departure from the EU, the Equality Act 2010, and the framework of policies and regulations which support it, will be safe from regressive amendment.
4. Maintain the UK’s role in promoting equality around the world: The EU has been a major force for the development of equality law worldwide, both in negotiations with countries seeking to join the Union, and more broadly through its European Union Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) which supports projects to promote equality and combat discrimination across the globe. As the UK is the second largest contributor to the EU budget, its exit will likely reduce funding for this vital source of support to human rights work. The Equal Rights Trust calls on the UK government to increase direct funding of international human rights work, and to continue to advocate for equality law reform around the world.