Equality commissions leave employment discrimination enforcement powers gathering dust on the shelf

The government’s three equality commissions have hardly made any use of their employment discrimination enforcement powers in the past seven years, according to a damning report.

Research by the Public Interest Research Unit found that between 1 January 1999 and 1 June 2006 the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the Disability rights Commission (DRC) and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) made no use of five of their enforcement powers and little use of the other five.

For example, the commissions served just one “non-discrimination notice”, which requires those found guilty of discriminatory practices to take specified action to prevent any further discrimination. These can be served after a formal investigation, of which there were only seven over the past seven years.

Some employment discrimination laws were not enforced at all during the period studied. This included the power to crack down on “discriminatory advertisements” for jobs.

The report concluded that “this appears to have made it harder for some people with long-term illnesses to get back into employment and for some mothers to gain promotion”.

The study also examined the impact of the Equality Act 2006, which establishes the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). The EOC and DRC will be included in the CEHR next year, to be followed by the CRE in 2009.

The report claims the Act will weaken the ability for individuals to get legal assistance in discrimination claims as the CEHR, unlike the individual commissions, will not have to consider all the applicants for assistance that it is empowered to grant.

Rupert Harwood, the report’s author, said from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to the Equality Act 2006, there has been a good deal of enactment but not a great deal of enforcement.

“The Commission for Racial Equality is set to continue until 2009 but appears to have already begun packing away its enforcement powers,” he said. “It needs to remember that it has a statutory duty to enforce the equality enactments.”

However, the study did concede that the three commissions had played an invaluable role in advising on legislative change, commissioning research, providing information and guidance as well as keeping equality issues on the political agenda.

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