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07 Jun 2023

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Politics and Society

This keynote speech was delivered by Anneliese Dodds MP at the UK in a Changing Europe Annual Conference. Check against delivery. 

Delivering equality: moving beyond rhetoric to governing for everyone

Thank you.  

And thank you for inviting me to close a fascinating day of discussion on Britain’s place in the world seven years after the UK voted to leave the EU.  

I was elected as a Member of the Westminster Parliament six years ago. I’m no veteran of the House of Commons, but the fact we’ve had two General Elections, four Prime Ministers and six Chancellors of the Exchequer in that period certainly makes me feel like one!  

The beginning of that Westminster Parliament I came into – the 2017 Parliament – was marked by the horrendous Grenfell disaster. Since then, as of course you know, the UK has left the EU, gone through a global pandemic, and is currently experiencing a crippling cost of living crisis while a new war rages on the European continent. We experienced the hottest ever summer in the UK last year – and the first wildfire caused by the climate crisis in our own capital. 

Each of these developments has had profound consequences. Taken together, they represent a period of upheaval, political, social and economic upheaval the likes of which we have not seen for a generation. Now more than ever, they signal the need to put the divisions of the past behind us. For Britain, that does mean looking to a future outside the EU – a future outside the single market and the customs union and with no return to free movement.  

But just because the UK has left the EU doesn’t mean that we can’t look to a bright future together as partners, neighbours, and allies. That is why I want to start with some reflections on the value of co-operation in today’s age. I will then consider ways in which there is much more to do to address, specifically, inequalities in our society – and the contribution that can be made by us all, including dare I say it the ‘experts’ in this room and those joining online. 

Many speakers today I know have reflected on the international cooperation we’ve seen against Putin’s aggression. For all its twists and turns, there is no doubt that countries worked together and continue to do so – with the UK taking decisive action in concert with the EU, the US and our other NATO allies to punish Vladimir Putin’s murderous Russian regime. Our collective bold and robust measures have sent the message that aggression will not be tolerated. 

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has also reawakened a need to work together to build resilience in the face of 21st century threats, and proved that the UK and EU can and must work together to bring our collective force to keep us safe. That is why the Labour Party has put a new UK-EU security pact at the heart of our foreign policy offer to the British public. We have committed to seeking new cooperation across foreign policy through regular EU/UK summits and structured dialogue to tackle Europe’s shared threats in areas like cyber, energy security and organised crime. 

The war in Ukraine has also demonstrated that when we protect those who need our help, we do not diminish our strength or security, but add to it. That supporting those in need can support us all. And that the forces which seek to divide and undermine, ultimately weaken their own moral and practical authority.  

This brings me to my second point.  Success is not achieved by pushing the most vulnerable down – but by pulling everyone up. That belief has always been critical to our country’s values of tolerance and fair mindedness. Survey evidence indicates that Britons overwhelmingly believe that everyone should have a fair shot at life, regardless of which part of the country they come from and who their parents are. Our country is a self-made nation in that sense.  

However, the realisation of that level playing field has required persistent political action and consistent political will – from Barbara Castle’s Equal Pay Act to Harriet Harman’s Equality Act; from civil partnerships to the repeal of Section 28; and from the legalisation of abortion to the Race Relations Act. All delivered, yes, by my party, the Labour Party. But each following many years, or even decades, of campaigning by ordinary people, who then expressed their commitment to breaking down barriers to opportunity at the ballot box. 

If Labour wins the next election, I will become the UK’s first ever Secretary of State for Women and Equalities. That means having someone at the top table, dedicated to advocating for equality and making sure fairness is embedded in every facet of government policymaking.  

There are some areas of policy rightly described as ‘wicked problems’ – where the impact of public policies can be unpredictable, where success is dependent on sustained action over very long periods of time, and where international factors can easily blow progress off course. But just because a problem is ‘wicked’ does not mean that politicians should not seek to tackle it – nor that it must remain wicked over time. In areas like combating the climate crisis, international evidence on what works has unpicked much of the knot, which makes Labour’s mission to make Britain a clean energy superpower, backed by our Green Prosperity Plan – our answer to Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act – all the more urgent. 

Yet when it comes to advancing equality, the problem isn’t wicked – it’s wilful. Many of the policy tools are already in government’s hands, if only ministers would use them. To realise greater equality often requires a quite simple recipe: a modest portion of evidence about what works, with a dollop of political will on top. Yet sadly over recent years we have not only seen an indifference to inequality – but a determination to underscore areas of ideological difference in the heat of political combat. Rather than the light of data and experience, we’ve felt the hot air of divisive rhetoric.  

One example comes from the worrying area of hate crime. Some politicians on the political right have rhetorically claimed that a focus on countering hate crime has diverted police from tackling violent crime. Yet amongst the surge in all hate crimes we see a substantial increase in violent hate crime – they’re not two opposing phenomena but two sides of the same coin: of hatred, violence and, too often, impunity or perpetrators. That is why Labour is determined to make Britain’s streets safe again by halving all serious violent crime, including violent hate crime.

Another example comes from the shocking inequalities in heath outcomes in our country. It took the Covid-19 pandemic to expose the extent of this crisis, with my friend and colleague Baroness Doreen Lawrence’s vital report into the avoidable tragedy of the disproportionate and devastating impact of the pandemic on Black, Asian and minority ethnic people. The Conservatives acknowledged this problem by setting up a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. But then they endorsed a report from the same commission that quibbled over the legacy of the slave trade and denied the existence of structural racism. 

Instead, we need to focus on the reality of inequality in our country – and here the evidence, despite the rhetoric, is sadly clear. The British people are, more than ever, supportive of action to remove barriers to opportunity. But over the last thirteen years, progress in removing those barriers has stalled.   

Today, 53 years after Labour’s Equal Pay Act, many women still experience pay inequality for their entire careers. And more women, old and young, are dropping out of the labour market than before, for a variety of reasons.  

There has been an explosion in insecure work, with zero-hour contracts and fire and rehire particularly impacting the lowest paid workers, especially Black, Asian and minority ethnic workers. 

There are more children, especially Black children, growing up in poverty, and more disabled people struggling to make ends meet. 

And for the first time in decades, life expectancy is going backwards in our country. The number of women dying in childbirth is rising too, and Black women are four times more likely to lose their lives giving birth than White women. Figures which should shame this government. 

In many ways, there is more political commentary about equality than ever – more argument about what’s ‘woke’ and what’s ‘anti-woke’. But over the years, there has been less and less delivery, while the bluster bandwagons rumble on.  

It hasn’t helped that over recent years the Minister responsible for oversight of the government’s equalities agenda has been dumped in the laps of those who hold other major roles like Foreign Secretary, Trade Secretary and Business Secretary. In one of the many surreal developments of the ill-starred Truss interregnum, this role was briefly held by a man, who at one point was apparently no longer responsible even for policies relating to women.  

Competing pressures from managing two areas of policy delivery at the same time have meant the current occupant of the Women and Equalities brief has struggled to attend Women and Equalities Questions in the House of Commons – failing to fulfil the most basic duty of a Minister of the Crown by being present to answer questions from MPs, as we saw again this today. 

Since 2010, the Government Equalities Office has also found itself tossed around in the tempest of Tory turmoil. Successive Prime Ministers have shoehorned its remit into whatever other policy portfolio the Women and Equalities Minister was also tasked with. In addition, both the Government Equalities Office and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have seen their budgets slashed in that time, with either the connivance or the indifference of the Minister whose duty it should have been to promote their vital work.  

What is the result of these years of ministerial merry-go-round today? A department whose taskforce on the national scandal of maternal mortality didn’t meet for a whole nine months. A department that has not been able to ban anti-LGBT+ conversion practices, despite promising this more than five years ago. A department that dragged its feet and then gave up on implementing the Lammy Review into the treatment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system. A department that has overseen soaring rises in hate crime of every category, runaway waiting lists for vital gynaecology procedures and a gender pay gap that won’t close for women in their 50s until 2050.  

Under the Conservatives, the Government Equalities Office has all but abandoned women after a pandemic which led to the biggest setbacks to gender equality in a generation. Today, it has just two flagship programmes for women: the first an initiative to get new mothers back into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics jobs that has yet to get off the ground despite being launched twice in two years; the second a pay transparency pilot which I can reveal today has been quietly side-lined and will no longer be a separate programme within the GEO. This forms part of a restructure that will also see the removal of several senior experts. 

The tireless officials trying to make a difference are not to blame for the failure of the last thirteen years. But what has been missing is a focus on evidence rather than divisive rhetoric, and the political will to make a difference. 

So here is the crux: from the labour market to housing, health, justice and education, the role of government should be to remove barriers to ambition and success for everyone. This is not only because public opinion strongly supports such action – but also because we simply cannot afford to do otherwise. Keir Starmer recently announced a mission for Britain to have the highest sustained economic growth in the G7. After thirteen years of stagnant growth, the UK has fallen behind our traditional economic competitors like France and Germany. It will require harnessing the talent, creativity and brilliance of everyone in Britain, from all backgrounds and all corners of our country, if we are to achieve that mission. 

Labour recently released analysis showing that closing the employment gap that Black, Asian and minority ethnic people face could add almost £36 billion to our economy. That’s £36 billion which we cannot afford to ignore through inaction. We also know that 185,000 women aged between 50 and 64 have become economically inactive since the start of the pandemic. One in ten women with menopause have left their jobs and 14% have reduced their hours due to the lack of support in the workplace. As with opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people, helping women to return to, or stay in, work is good for those women, good for their employers and good for all of us. In fact, it could add another £7 billion to our economy. 

Delivering change requires understanding the evidence. That is why we will legislate to introduce Ethnicity Pay Gap reporting, as part of the landmark new Race Equality Act that we are determined to deliver – because the evidence shows this works. We will enable gender pay comparisons across employers – again, because we know this can drive change. We have learned from business about other successful measures they have taken to increase opportunity, so we will put these into practice too. Labour will require large employers to put in place Menopause Action Plans to set out how they are helping their workers going through the menopause. And we also understand that many women can’t stay in work if they are on a seemingly endless NHS waiting list, so we will pull our NHS back from the brink and recruit thousands more doctors, nurses and health visitors. 

We’ll also act on sexual harassment in the workplace, including by third parties. Sadly, this is still widespread in our country, with one in two women and seven out of ten LGBT+ workers having experienced it. This is where government action can really make a difference. A recent study of sexual harassment policy in almost 200 countries showed the benefits to women’s economic outcomes that come from the introduction of laws and policies prohibiting sexual harassment at work, from boosting participation in the labour force to improving pay for women. That is why, as part of Labour’s ground-breaking New Deal for Working People, we will require employers to create and maintain workplaces and working conditions free from harassment, including by third parties such as customers and service users. We have also published a comprehensive agenda to tackle violence against women and girls across society, because we know such cross-cutting action is urgently needed. 

Labour will also stand up for LGBT+ people in government and treat them with dignity and respect, not use them as a political football. We will start by following the recommendation of the Law Commission on reforms to hate crime laws by strengthening and equalising the law so that every category of hate crime is treated as an aggravated offence. Under Labour, everyone who falls victim to hate crime will be treated equally under the law, and the perpetrators of anti-LGBT+ and disability hatred will no longer dodge longer sentences.  

We will learn the lessons of the SNP’s botched reform of gender recognition laws in Scotland, a failure that leaves trans people in limbo as Holyrood and Westminster fight out their future in the courts. Instead we will build consensus around modernising the Gender Recognition Act to remove indignities for trans people while upholding the Equality Act, its protected characteristics and its provision for single-sex spaces. And we’ll heed the advice of experts from the British Medical Association and Mind that conversion practices constitute psychologically damaging abuse. We will legislate to ban these in all their forms – an inclusive ban for all LGBT people – and of course we can do that while protecting the provision of legitimate counselling and talking therapies. Labour wants a ban that is laser-targeted at coercive conversation practices – not one that can be assailed by strawman arguments about what does and doesn’t constitute conversion therapy. International best practice shows this is perfectly possible via well-drafted and precise legislation, and that is the standard by which we will judge any Conversion Therapy Bill brought forward by the Conservatives. 

As we have been drawing up our practical, deliverable plans for change, we have been learning from those businesses, from our own history, and from experts in our own country. That’s why our New Deal for Working People draws on evidence from successful British businesses, often working with their recognised trade unions, who have driven up productivity, and sustainable profits, by adopting modern practices in the workplace.  

Comparative evidence about what works is also vital. The UK used to be a country from which other nations drew policy inspiration. Our instinctive tolerant mindset as Brits, codified in legislation like the Equality Act, was often praised by my international colleagues. And as a former Member of the European Parliament, I will admit to sometimes being shocked by the experience of colleagues such as the fellow former MEP from a different country who was told she could not be elected as a new mother so would be shifted to the bottom of her party’s list, or the lack of ethnic diversity in representation in the European Parliament, beyond Labour’s MEPs. 

The last thirteen years, however, have sadly undermined the UK’s reputation for sound decisionmaking and competent government. We can learn so much from how others see us- and their views of recent Conservative Governments have been revealing, shifting from first disbelief to anger and then, in many cases, resignation.  

The current government’s attitude towards the Equality Act is a case in point. Thirteen years after Labour passed that landmark legislation, it is still protecting people in countless ways every day. The legal framework it provides against discrimination by employers, businesses, schools, public bodies and many other institutions is one that many other countries still lack and look to learn from.  

This was a legislative achievement that cemented our country’s reputation as a beacon of equality at the time, and of which my party is still rightly proud thirteen years on. Perhaps this is why Conservative ministers have started to take aim at the Equality Act with increasing regularity. From criticising protected characteristics to describing the Act itself as a “Trojan Horse”, what started out as a few political pot shots against this groundbreaking law is in danger of becoming a creeping barrage, with worrying consequences for the future of equality in the UK. 

Yet at the same time, the Prime Minister is casting himself as a defender of the Equality Act, and stating that he backs the protections it contains for women. To listen to him you wouldn’t think that these protections had already been enshrined in law for thirteen years. Once again, this isn’t about the evidence, but about pushing rhetoric that only seeks to stoke division and weaken the overwhelming consensus view that is in favour a building a fairer, more equal Britain for everyone.  

So today I want to be very clear: Labour is proud of the Equality Act and proud of the protections it provides. And I say today to Rishi Sunak: you can’t claim ownership of women’s equality when your party has been failing women for thirteen years. You can’t disparage Labour’s Equality Act one day only to use it as a political crutch the next. The Equality Act protects everyone, and that is why Labour will oppose any Conservative attempt to undermine it. We will defend it from attack from bad-faith actors. And we will protect and uphold it in government, including its protected characteristics and provision for single-sex exemptions.  

We sadly cannot expect progress from our current government on equality. So recently we have had to turn to other nations, beyond our own, to see it. Spain, for example, has a Ministry dedicated to equalities at the highest level of government to undertake proper equality impact assessments and ensure they are acted on. In Sweden and Finland, gender equality is integrated at all stages and levels of government policymaking, ensuring equality is baked into the law-making process in a way that goes beyond rhetoric and works to deliver better outcomes.  

The result can be seen in the index prepared by the European Institute for Gender Equality, which ranks Sweden and Finland among the highest EU countries on an aggregate of equality measures. In many OECD countries today life expectancy also continues to increase for women, while in the UK it has come to a standstill. And the sweeping electoral gains won by our sister party in Australia in recent elections demonstrate that prioritising equality is a vote-winning strategy. 

Taking inspiration and learning from around the world are critical for us changing our own nation for the better. That’s why I am so glad networks like the UK in a Changing Europe still exist to share best practice and knowledge. They are needed now more than ever. Experts are not part of the problem – they are how we know what will achieve change, in the most efficient and effective way possible.  

Thank you for inviting me here today and I’m looking forward to getting into some of your questions from in the room and at home.  

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