"For the past six years I have worked for Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council, a small local charity that provides advice and representation to victims of discrimination. In the last few months, I like many others in local community and voluntary organisations have been trying to bring in as much funding as possible in order that our services still exist after this month for the coming financial year.
With young people, families and pensioners facing a tougher and tougher future in Con-Dem Britain, the need to easily accessible, accurate and timely advice is greater than ever. The bed rock of community based advice provision has always been the citizens advice movement. Often the advice consists of signposting and it is relatively infrequent that the advice involves ongoing casework. These organisations are supported with a national infrastructure and the majority of work that they pick up tends to be fixing errors and screw ups by social housing, the benefits agency and benefits sections of local government. The mainstream community and voluntary advice sector thus spends significant proportions of its resources in helping public services deliver to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. It’s a really good argument for the need of government and local authorities to invest in advice. However, the argument doesn’t translate when you start discussing discrimination advice.
Despite the fact that our organisation has been delivering discrimination advice for the past thirty years, discussions with local authorities in our area clearly indicate that supporting individuals when they experience discrimination, isn’t what they want to invest in. They would rather things not get that far. They would rather that local businesses, local services did not discriminate and then no formal action, no challenge, would ever have to be endured. This all comes from a view of the world that people don’t generally act unfairly or want to act in a way that is unfair and that most of the time when discrimination happens it is due to misunderstanding and the services and employers just need that little bit of extra assistance to ensure that their equality practice is positive and legally compliant. A view echoed by the Government Equalities Office review of the Equality and Human Rights Commission last year.
Tell that to victims of discrimination and see what the response is. Tell that to the catering manager who was told by her supervisor “If you were my dog I would have you put down”, who was told that she was made redundant and then later saw her own job being advertised on the company website. Tell that to the Eastern European baker who’s manager told her that he “only employed Polish idiots”.
When the going gets tough the discrimination starts flowing and most of the time it has little to do with mis-understanding. It has more to do with the abuse of service delivery or employment relationships in a context of a basic lack of respect for human beings and their rights to fairness. This is very far removed from getting the delivery of public services to work well and this approach has very high levels of expectation from organisations that government still view as needing to publically demonstrate commitment to the general duty requiring:
Eliminat[ion of] unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act.
Advance[ment] equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
Foster[ing] good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
If this was so easy, then why require the general duty under the Equality act 2011. There’s also a requirement to “publish information demonstrating compliance with the general duty under the equality act” by 31st January 2012. From a quick scan of the public bodies operating where I live only 20% have complied with this requirement and even those that have reported, haven’t all reported on both workforce and the delivery of services. So much for the positive hearts and minds of those responsible for the delivery of public bodies and their commitment to comply with legal requirements.
The truth is that when it comes to equality, the growth in capacity has been the in the knowledge of how to discriminate and not leave tracks to enable action to be taken by a complainant. In the current economic climate there has been an exponential growth in employers offering contracts with working hours being detailed as 0-37 hours per week. With this kind of a contract unless there is an out and out admission that discrimination is taking place employers are quite within their rights to no longer offer work to the woman who has just found out that she is pregnant or the disabled worker who’s role had changed and requires an additional reasonable adjustment. The truth is that discrimination is about whether one group of people matter more than another and how many of us are willing to stand up and be counted when the chips are down.
If you are one of those who want to stand up and be counted please sign the petition on this link.
You can also join the sounds off for justice campaign and try and protect access to legal aid here
and join the Justice for All campaign to protect free local legal advice.