Last Thursday, equality activists, academics, lawyers and other experts gathered at the second annual Equal Rights Trust Bob Hepple Equality Award event, co-organised this year with the Industrial Law Society. The award winner was respected disability activist and academic Professor Anna Lawson.
Professor Lawson is the Director of Leeds University’s Centre for Disability Studies, which focuses on collaborative, multi-disciplinary research, and Co-ordinator of the University’s Disability Law Hub, one of the largest groups of disability law scholars in the world. Professor Lawson works with disability activists across the world and in recent years has worked with the European Commission, the Academic Network of European Disability Experts and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
Accepting the award, Professor Lawson spoke movingly about her own experience of disability discrimination and her work to promote equal law reform on disability. Reflecting on the recent referendum in favour of the United Kingdom (UK) leaving the European Union (EU), she said:
"For those working in the equality field, the coming months and years are likely to be busy ones in which vigilance will be needed close to home as well as further afield.
I have had the great privilege of working with some of the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, of whom we have heard so much about over recent weeks. I’ve witnessed first-hand their total tireless and selfless commitment to tackling inequality and exclusion.
I do hope we will be able to guard against the assumption which surfaced in the lead up to the referendum that the UK has dealt with equality issues so we have nothing to gain from collaboration. Not only does this limit our potential to learn and develop, but it also suggests that our concern with equality and justice is only for people within our borders."
The EU has been a key driver of improved equality legislation in the UK. As the Equal Rights Trust has highlighted, 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. In respect of disability, the fact that the EU has subsumed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into many of instruments and policies has influenced the development of inclusive laws and policies in the UK.
Following the award presentation, Justice Kate O’Regan, who in 1994 became the youngest judge and one of only two women appointed to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, gave a keynote speech on, “Looking at labour law through the lens of a constitution”. Speaking about the evolution of labour law in South Africa during and after the apartheid era, Justice O’Regan also stressed the importance of global collaboration in the development of laws:
"Never expect your system to stay the same. Things can change dramatically and we learn so much from looking at others."
The Bob Hepple Equality Award was established in the name of the Equal Rights Trust’s former Chair and Honorary President, Professor Sir Bob Hepple, who acted as an advisor to Nelson Mandela during apartheid and whose work was critical in shaping equality legislation in the UK, including the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), the Race Relations Act (1976), and the Equality Act 2010.
Paying tribute to Sir Bob Hepple, Professor Lawson poignantly ended her acceptance speech repeating words he spoke shortly before his death in 2015: “Whatever happens, we must never stop working for justice and equality.”
If you were unable to join us at the event but would like to watch the video recording, please click here.
To read more about the winner and speakers click here.
Read about last year's event, the inaugural Bob Hepple Equality Award click here.