Britain’s Equality Act should be amended as it has been interpreted in ways that “incentivize ideological uniformity” rather than true diversity, a conservative think tank has argued.
The Equality Act, which was enacted under a Labour government and came into effect in 2010, was intended to protect individuals from discrimination and promote a fairer and more equal society.
But in its latest paper published on Monday, the London-based Policy Exchange think tank said the result of the duties under the act has been, in some cases, “not to produce true diversity and equality of treatment but rather to incentivise ideological uniformity.”
Over the past decade, British universities and student unions have used equality legislation to exclude debate on controversial issues, or “deplatform” speakers with certain views, by citing the need to protect others from being offended or feeling alienated.
In 2017, students at Oxford University’s Balliol College went so far as to ban the student-run Christian Union from having a booth at its freshers’ fair, because its presence “may alienate incoming students.”
The Policy Exchange report observed that “there has been a tendency to consider discrimination not as something that someone intends to do but as a product of unconscious or subconscious bias.”
“This same concern to avoid offence has led to decisions denying claims by individuals whose beliefs on controversial issues were deemed to be not worthy of respect in a democratic society,” the report said.
Therefore, the act has in some cases been used “as a sword in battles over what ideas and expressions are permissible in the workplace and educational and other public institutions.”
“The view that equality requires the exclusion of viewpoints that may cause offence or discomfort is corrosive of the mission of universities to educate students to consider and debate, and to test by argument, a wide range of ideas and theories,” said Oxford law professor Paul Yowell, the author of the report.
He said the equality duty under the act should be amended to make it clear that equality “requires tolerance of differing political opinions and religious and philosophical worldviews, and that a mark of a healthy institution is diversity of such opinions and world views.”
“Such an amendment to the public sector equality duty would help to promote the right to private life, freedom of thought and belief, and expression under the Human Rights Act,” he said in the report.
Lord Faulks, a former justice minister, backed the report’s findings.
“At the heart of Policy Exchange’s paper lies the need to protect free speech, academic freedom, and true diversity of opinions, however unfashionable and however upsetting some may regard the expression of such opinions to be,” he said in the foreword of the report.
“None of this should be controversial to those who promoted the Act. It has identified a number of ways in which the legislation should be amended so that Act’s true intentions can be protected rather than subverted by those who, while espousing the case for diversity, advance a rather narrow view of the opinions which merit protection under the Act.”