Liz Truss criticises Equality Act’s focus on protected characteristics

Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

Women and equalities minister Liz Truss has criticised the Equality Act 2010 and dismissed unconscious bias training as one of several ‘tools of the left’ that do nothing to ‘fix systems’.

She stated that the state’s agenda had become too narrow, and the discrimination debate should not focus solely on race, religion, sexual orientation and disability.

Truss, who is also international trade secretary, said in a speech to the Conservative thinktank the Centre for Policy Studies that policies such as unconscious bias training ignored other crucial ways in which the country was not fair.

The government, she said, would now turn to promoting “freedom, choice opportunity, individual humanity and dignity”.

Truss criticised equality legislation, claiming that it “overlooks socio-economic status and geographic inequality”. She insisted the debate surrounding equality must be “led by facts… not by fashion” and emphasised the need for objective data.

Significantly, she argued that data based solely on protected characteristics – over which it is illegal to discriminate – age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation – was not fit for purpose when it comes to setting equality policy.

The equalities minister said: “Underlying this [approach] is the soft bigotry of low expectations, where people from certain backgrounds are never expected or considered able enough to reach high standards.

“This diminishes individual humanity and dignity, because when you choose on the basis of protected characteristics, you end up excluding people.”

Techniques like unconscious bias training, quotas and diversity statements … do nothing to make the workplace fundamentally fairer” – Liz Truss, women and equalities minister

The international trade secretary added: “Time and time again, we see politicians making their own evidence-free judgements.”

She also said discussion had “been dominated by a small number of unrepresentative voices, and by those who believe people are defined by their protected characteristic and not by their individual character”.

She said: “Techniques like unconscious bias training, quotas and diversity statements … do nothing to make the workplace fundamentally fairer. By driving reforms that increase competition, boost transparency and improve choice, we can open up opportunities.”

She warned that the state must not “waste time on misguided, wrong-headed and ultimately destructive ideas that take agency away from people”.

The Conservative Party’s approach to equality, said Truss, would “reject the approach taken by the Left … captured as they are by identity politics, loud lobby groups and the idea of ‘lived experience’.

“It will focus fiercely on fixing geographic inequality … addressing the real problems people face in their everyday lives … using evidence and data.”

The speech is the latest signal from the government that it does not believe unconscious bias training to be effective. Earlier this week it ordered the scrapping of unconscious bias training for civil servants after authors of a study claimed there was no evidence of its effectiveness.

Civil service managers had been required to undertake mandatory unconscious bias training courses since 2015 in an attempt to level the playing field, tackle implicit and explicit biases, and build more inclusive workplaces.

However, cabinet secretary Julia Lopez said that such training would be phased out by government departments, and public sector organisations would be encouraged to do the same.

Some Conservatives are unhappy at the influence that Black Lives Matter has exerted since the summer. Earlier this month cabinet minister George Eustice failed to condemn Millwall football supporters who booed players taking the knee. Football supporters at Premier League grounds have, since the incident, made a point of vigorously applauding the players’ gesture.

Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, a racial equality think tank, said: “Liz Truss’s attempts to ‘overhaul’ the equalities work in the UK is nothing short of a whitewashing of British history and its relationship with race.”

Shadow equalities minister Marsha de Cordova said: “This is gratuitous provocation from a government that consistently refuses to face up to its responsibilities and the widening inequality it has caused.

“When Liz Truss dismisses ‘fashionable’ causes, she actually dismisses the devastating impact of discrimination and unfairness in people’s day-to-day lives.”

Shadow secretary for justice David Lammy MP dismissed Truss’s speech as divisive and added: “We need to create a fairer society for everyone – but this means recognising the barriers faced by black, Asian and other ethnic minorities are facts not ‘fashion’.”

Gemma McCall, CEO of developer Culture Shift told Personnel Today: “The government has a responsibility to set an example for wider society, and this bold and potentially damaging call for a complete end to unconscious bias training seems at odds with their duty to lead by example and encourage all organisations to put equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of their practices.”

Meanwhile, the gender pay gap at Truss’s international trade department has grown significantly since she took it over in 2019. Figures released yesterday showed the department’s gender pay gap has widened every year since the first such report in 2017, when mean wage inequality stood at 3.6%. Truss is also women and equalities minister.

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