Relying on individuals to enforce equality law is outdated and will not result in systemic change, an investigation by MPs has concluded.
According to the Women and Equalities Committee, regulators should compile a ‘critical mass’ of casework in order to drive ‘strategic litigation’ that could set legal precedents or change court procedures.
The committee's report, ‘Enforcing the Equality Act: the law and the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’, suggests that 10 maternity leave claims against the same employer, for example, could have significantly more impact than multiple one-off cases.
The committee, which launched its inquiry in July 2018, said: ‘While individuals must still have the right to challenge discrimination in the courts, the system of enforcement should ensure that this is only rarely needed. ‘
The committee also found ‘example after example’ of mainstream enforcement bodies failing to meet their duties in respect of the Equality Act 2010. On sexual harassment, regulators displayed ‘passivity and indifference,’ it claimed.
Consequently, the report recommends that each government department be legally bound to ensure that the enforcement bodies for which they are responsible are using their powers to secure compliance with rights under the act.
Committee chair Maria Miller MP said: ‘The government must act on its own obligations. It must embed compliance and enforcement of the Equality Act into its most significant strategies. That it has not yet done so beggars belief.’
The committee is also critical of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a national body with the power to fund discrimination cases. The report notes that the commission has seen a ‘significant decrease in activity over time’ and has mishandled disputes with its own staff.
One EHRC employee told the committee that staff who were made redundant were treated ‘like common criminals’ and were disadvantaged in finding new jobs by administrative decisions on payment in lieu of notice.
The committee said that the EHRC ‘must refocus its work and be bolder in using its enforcement powers’.