How equal is Great Britain? How far have we come since the Race Relations Act of 1976?

By Hattie

At the beginning of this year we were (and still are!) very pleased to announce that our collection of publications from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) were made available digitally, meaning numerous pamphlets, reports and policies are now online for you to look at – Click here to view the collection, and click here to read a blog post about the digital process! I have decided that these are especially worth a look this month, as it was 42 years ago in November that the CRE was first created.

One document I came across was the ‘Training Handbook for Social Services Departments’ working in multi-racial areas (see below). The Handbook explains that the CRE was formed under the Act of 1976, with the hope of eliminating racial discrimination within England, Wales and Scotland. This 1976 legislation replaced the previous 1965 Race Relations Act,  which failed to address racial discrimination within housing, employment and the legal system. Almost half a century later, racial discrimination still exists in our society – which causes me to ask: Did the 1976 Act succeed in its aims? How is racial discrimination characterised now in comparison to how it was perceived in the 1970s?

A cropped section of a training handbook called Working in Multi-racial areas

A cropped section of the handbook showing the duties of the commission for racial equality

What prompted the Race Relations Act and what did it actually aim to do?

By the time the first Race Relations Act was announced in the 1964 Labour manifesto, Labour MP Fenner Brockway had already made nine unsuccessful attempts throughout the 1950s to get the bill passed. The 1950s was a rocky decade, with events like the 1958 Notting Hill Riots adding to racial tensions. It is therefore not surprising that social and political activism tackling racism was already in full swing long before official changes were made by the government.

A lot of this activism was a response to existing racist laws, such as those around immigration. These laws forced anti-racist activists to take action and increase public awareness of ideas such as the ‘colour bar’ that existed within British society. Individual figures such as Ezzreco, Claudia Jones and Vishnu Sharma led community-based lobbies, spearheaded black organisations, and took action that would be noticed by legislators.

Another key reason for the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Act was, of course, the fact that no legislation addressing racial discrimination actually existed in Great Britain, meaning that racial discrimination and hate crimes were not classed as criminal offences. When the Race Relations Act was finally passed in 1965 however, which outlawed discrimination ‘on the grounds of race, colour, nationality, ethnic and national origin’ in public places, it was met with some mixed feelings. It was thought of by many as useless, or ‘toothless’, due to all the aspects of racial discrimination it left out. 

This eventually led to its repealing and replacement with the 1976 Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in the fields of employment, the provision of goods and services, education and public functions, to name a few. You can find a wide range of pamphlets issued by the CRE in our collection, on everything from caring for young children to appointing health consultants (see below).

A brochure advising on the appointment of NHS consultantsA Brochure on caring for under-fives in a multi-racial society

The Act aimed to hold both the individuals and institutions responsible for promoting and maintaining racial inequality, but did it make a difference?

Why wasn’t it as effective as hoped?

Though ground-breaking, the initial Race Relations Act did not set a good example of how this country would deal with racial discrimination. It didn’t tackle discrimination in housing and employment, much to the frustration of Labour backbenchers and anti-racist groups. It also failed to tackle the ‘religious loophole’ as described in a 1965 Observer article, which meant discrimination still existed through individuals ‘refus[ing] to serve Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Jews.’ Although attempts were made to solve these problems in the 1976 Act, it was increasingly difficult to enforce the law once it extended to private rather than public places. For this reason, it was rejected and ridiculed by activists and some politicians, who questioned whether such an Act would or could ever work.

What about now?

In 2007, the Commission for Racial Equality became the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Race Relations Act was replaced by the Equality Act 2010. Unfortunately, these new titles have still not ensured racial equality in this country. The 2015 report by the EHRC called ‘Is Britain Fairer?’, which you can read on the EHRC website, shows both the successes and challenges regarding racial equality in this country, however the list of challenges was longer than successes in almost every section.

While racial inequality in the 1970s was typically measured through acts of racial discrimination or hate crimes in public places, racial inequality is now recognised, rightly, as far more systematic and institutionalised. Areas of inequality highlighted in the report include mental health, law enforcement, and access to higher education institutions – were these even given consideration in the 1970s? Below are a few statistics that stuck out to me as being particularly revealing of not only that racial inequality still exists in the UK, but also of the differences in how racial inequality is thought of now compared to the 1970s:

  • While more Black pupils in England went on to study at a higher education        institution (than in previous years), they were less likely than White, mixed and Asian pupils to go to higher-ranked institutions.
  • Unemployment rates were significantly higher for ethnic minorities; Pakistani/Bangladeshi women were less than half as likely to be employed compared with average female employment rates; Muslims experienced the highest unemployment rates. Poverty rates were higher for children in households headed by someone from an ethnic minority.
  • Black/African/Caribbean/Black British people had the highest rate of contact with specialist mental health services; and Black people were more likely to have been compulsorily detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 as part of an inpatient stay in a mental health unit.
  • A rising incidence of islamophobic and anti-semitic hate crime.
  • Flaws in the police response to domestic abuse and in the use of stop and search powers.
  • Those from some ethnic minorities remained less likely to be politically active.
  • A disproportionate amount of the prison population was from a minority ethnic group. There are proportionately many more young BAME male prisoners than older ones, with BAME representation in the 15-17 age group the highest at 43.7 per cent.

Writers, politicians and activists agree that even the newest Equality Act is not good enough, and the increasing cuts made to the EHRC’s budget (which fell from £70 million in 2009/10 to £17 million in 2014/15) mean that gender, race, disability, sexuality and age discrimination are being dealt with as one general issue of inequality rather than separately important issues. Although the Race Relations Act of 1976 can only be seen as the bare bones of this process, its belief that both the institution and the individual need to be responsible for racial equality is one that is still valuable and relevant today.

Yellow and Black Front cover of a booklet on Racial Equality

Front cover of a Consultative Paper for the Race Relations Act

Come in and make up your own mind about the Race Relations Act of 1976 and racial inequality by taking a look over the intriguing material we have here in the collection. The documents mentioned and pictured in this post are, ‘Working in Multi-Racial Areas’, ‘Appointing NHS Consultants And Senior Registrars: Report of a formal investigation’, ‘Caring for under-fives in a multi-racial society’, ‘A Standard for Racial Equality in Local Government’ and ‘The Race Relations Act 1976 – Time for a Change?’

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