The Race Relations Act – 50 years on…

Why was the Race Relations Act important?

The Race Relations Act 1965 (the Act) was the first piece of legislation enacted in the UK to deal with discrimination on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”. 

The Race Relations Act50 Years On

The Act was limited in effect and only covered discrimination in specified public places.  The Act also set up the Race Relations Board to consider complaints brought under the Act.

Although the Act had its flaws it provided the foundations for further legislation.

Why was Race Relations Act necessary?

Following the end of the Second World War the United Kingdom saw a great increase in the number of economic migrants.

By the 1950s 'the colour bar' had became an increasingly common, particularly in London where most migrant workers from the Caribbean had settled. Resentment of the new arrivals had spilled over into violence in the Notting Hill riots of 1958.

Before the 1960s, discrimination on the grounds of race was not illegal. Casual prejudice was part of daily life for many. Without the introduction of the Race Relations Act discrimination on grounds of race would have been able to continue.  The Act represented a statement in public policy.

Is there more work to be done?

A recent survey of 5,000 people by BBC local radio found that younger people were more likely to have seen or experienced acts of racism in the past two years.

The poll, conducted to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Race Relations Act, revealed a "complex picture" of attitudes.

While 43% said racism had increased, only 14% believed it was a problem where they lived.

Where are we now?

The law has developed over the last 50 years and provisions in relation to discrimination are now contained in the Equality Act 2010.  The Equality Act replaced previous legislation and ensures consistency in what employers and employees need to do to make their workplaces a fair environment and comply with the law.

The Equality Act not only deals with discrimination in the sphere of employment (a matter excluded under the original Race Relations Act) but also deals with the provision of/and access to services.  This means that those providing services cannot discriminate in the provision of the service. 

Furthermore, the terms Equality Act now mean that it is unlawful for one party to instruct another to discriminate.

The Equality Act now deals with discrimination by defining what are known as “protected characteristics”. Protected characteristics are those characteristics on which an individual cannot be discriminated.  These are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender Reassignment
  • Pregnancy and Maternity
  • Marriage and Civil Partnership
  • Race
  • Religion of Belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation

These “protected characteristics” have been read widely by the courts and it has even been successfully argued that views on climate change and fox hunting amount to “religion and belief” worthy of protection under the Equality Act.

Employers and employees in the public sector, and in private or voluntary organisations carrying out work on behalf of a public sector employer, have a legal public sector equality duty in the workplace to prevent and eliminate discrimination, establish and promote equality and equal opportunities, and foster good relations between people with different protected characteristics.

The terms of the Equality Act are much broader and further reaching that those of the original Race Relations Act but the basic principles of non discrimination have been built on and added to.

If you’d like to discuss how the Equality Act impacts, or could impact, your business and the services it provides, please contact one of our Employment Team.