Maria Miller MP: 50 years since the Race Relations Act

Today we celebrate half a century since the passing of the Race Relations Act. This is an opportunity to consider how far Britain has progressed since 1965 but to also acknowledge there is more work to be done to ensure Britain is a fairer place to live for everyone. The Women and Equalities Select Committee, a cross party group of MPs, has been established by this Parliament to scrutinise how effective we are as a society in tackling inequalities in Britain today; that includes race which, we believe, does not always get the same level of attention as other equality issues. 

Britain has a far from easy history on the issue of race. If we are to learn from the past we cannot air brush out events that don’t sit easily with the views of today. As a Conservative MP it is difficult for me to understand my Party’s opposition to the Race Relations Act in 1965. But it is clear that the world was a very different place. In 1963 the Transport and General Workers Union had openly supported a block on employing Black or Asian bus crews in Bristol. And in 1968 itself more than 4000 London dockers went on strike when Enoch Powell was sacked by Conservative Leader Edward Heath for his ‘rivers of blood’ speech. History shows us that tensions between white and BAME populations cut across Party political lines. 

Some might criticise the Race Relations Act 1965 for not being stronger but it started a pivotal dialogue on race issues that continues today. Drawing on similar legislation in North America, the Act made it unlawful to ban people from public places such as swimming pools and hotels on the basis of their skin colour. The Act used civil rather than criminal sanction because Conservative opponents “feared making racial discrimination a crime would only exacerbate race relations in areas where it was already a problem”; and there was an acceptance in the Act that at that time personal racist views were above the law: 

“My proposal is that discrimination on grounds of race or colour should be penalised if it is practised in places to which the public have access - in particular in hotels, restaurants, public houses, places of entertainment or recreation and public transport vehicles. There is not much evidence of discrimination in such places now; but it is indefensible if it should occur and I think it is right to prohibit it. We cannot, I feel, go further and deal (for example) with the refusal of landladies to take coloured lodgers - which leads to a lot of complaint - without interfering unjustifiably with the rights of the individual.” (Labour Home Secretary, Frank Soskice)

Nevertheless, the Race Relations Act 1965 laid the ground for the more significant race relations legislation which followed. Campaigning groups in the 1960s and 1970s helped to shift attitudes, paving the way for further legislation. The Race Relations Act 1968 extended the scope of the legislation to housing and employment and established a Community Relations Commission. Then eight years later the Race Relations Act 1976 was passed, the most fundamental piece of early race relations legislation in the UK. The 1976 Act replaced the two earlier Acts, and replaced the Race Relations Board and the Community Relations Commission with the Commission for Racial Equality, tasked with overseeing the enforcement of the law, working towards the elimination of discrimination, and promoting good race relations in society. 

Since 1976 there have been a number of important reports on UK race relations responding to significant events which have all demonstrated the ongoing struggle against race inequality throughout British society and in particular in our public institutions. In 1981 the Scarman report examined the urban unrest in Brixton in 1981 and highlighted persistent racial disadvantage, inner-city decline and mistrust in the police, arguing for a more racially diverse police force. 

Thirty four years on from the Race Relations Act being passed in 1999 the Macpherson report on the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence found that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’. The Parekh report (2000) set out a vision for a multicultural Britain based on unity, diversity and equality. The Cantle report into the disturbances in Northern towns in 2001 argued for a shift in focus from multicultural policies to community cohesion.

Throughout the past 50 years the law and our institutions have continued to evolve. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 outlawed racial discrimination in all public authority functions and introduced a statutory duty for public authorities to promote race equality. It also made chief police officers liable for acts of racial discrimination by their staff. The Commission for Equality and Human Rights (now the Equality and Human Rights Commission) replaced the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the other equality bodies in 2007. EU legislation has broadened the scope of anti-discrimination legislation to cover age, disability, religion or belief, and sexual orientation and then gender.

For our Committee one of the most important developments was the Equality Act 2010. This consolidated and replaced existing anti-discrimination legislation, including the earlier race relations legislation. It outlaws discrimination on the grounds of nine ‘protected characteristics’, including race. It is our role to scrutinise the effectiveness of this complex body of equality policy and we are united in wanting to see this legislation deliver a fairer society for all. 

Maria Miller MP, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

@commonswomequ

womeqcom@parliament.uk