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165 Society: Diversity pioneers


Government Equalities Office


Dealing with equality in the fields of race, gender, sexuality, age and disability


I


n the history of British parliamentary democracy, laws against discrimination are a relatively recent development. Te vast bulk of legislation referring to race, gender and sexuality has come into force only since the 1960s, while age and disability discrimination barely gets a mention until the 1990s. For instance, it wasn’t until the Race Relations Act of 1965—later strengthened in 1968 and then 1976—that discrimination on the grounds of “colour, race or ethnic or national origins” was outlawed in the fields of employment, the provision of goods and services, education and public functions. Homosexual acts were punishable by execution until 1861 and by imprisonment until the Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967; they were still criminalised in Scotland and Northern Ireland until the early 1980s, while the gay age of consent was only equalised in 2004. And it wasn’t until the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 that the first attempts were made to outlaw discrimination against people with disabilities.


Faith and gender equality Laws against religious discrimination, however, go back much further. One of the first forms of prejudice addressed by parliament, the 1778 Papists Act, aimed at prejudice against Roman Catholics, laws that were strengthened by the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. MPs then started debating similar provisions for Jews, resulting in the Religious Opinions Act of 1846, although Jews were still prevented from taking up elected or legal positions unless they took a mandatory “oath of abjuration” (which asked them to renounce their Judaism). It took the Jews Relief Act of 1858 to remove this barrier. Women’s emancipation came later. Following the


Suffragist movement, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, the Fourth Reform Act of 1918 granted the vote to certain women over 30, something extended to all women with the 1928 Representation of the People Act. In terms of employment, the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act had admitted women into areas of civil service, courts and universities, but it wasn’t until Harold Wilson’s administrations of the 1960s and 1970s


“Homosexual acts were punishable by execution until 1861; they were still criminalised in Scotland and Northern Ireland until the early 1980s”


that further progressive legislation was passed, in the form of the Abortion Act (1967), the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975).


Europe and beyond In 1972, Britain entered the European Economic Community (EEC). When the EEC was renamed the European Union 20 years later, the Maastricht Treaty included a Social Charter that dealt with anti-discrimination law, although the Conservative government opted out of this. Te Labour government, elected in 1997, was more enthusiastic about these social provisions, and in 2000 it took on board the new directives explicitly protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, religion, belief and age, as well as updating legislation on disability, race and gender discrimination. Te last act passed before the 2010 election was the far-reaching Equality Act, which codified huge chunks of anti-discrimination legislation. Te Government Equalities Office (GEO) was established in October 2007. Initially known as the Woman and Equality Unit, it was based within the Department for Communities and Local Government, later merged into the Home Office and then transferred to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in September 2012.


Te GEO takes responsibility for equality strategy and


legislation across government, and currently provides advice to at least nine other departments. For instance, it advises the Department for Work and Pensions on disability discrimination and general age policy; liaises with the Department for Transport on provisions for disability and transport; and works closely with the Ministry of Justice on human rights policy. It aims to improve equality and reduce discrimination and disadvantage for all—at work, in public and political life, and in people’s life chances. — www.gov.uk/geo


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