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Hear from David Ruebain, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion.

The history of EDI legislation – progress and evolution

  • Video transcript

    David Ruebain: The history of EDI legislation – progress and evolution

    Hello, everybody. My name is David Ruebain. I'm the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion in Sussex University.

    This is based on a briefing that I delivered to the University's Council this year, March 2022, and it consists of some reflections on the development in law and policy relating to equality, diversity and inclusion in Britain, particularly since the Second World War.

    45 years of legislation

    I thought it would be useful to start with some understanding of how we got to where we are today, certainly from a legislative or a legal point of view. And it may be useful to note that the first type of any kind of anti-discrimination legislation really was the Race Relations Act 1965.

    The Race Relations Act 1965

    Of course, the context within which that was passed was the changes in society brought about from two world wars, from a post-war settlement that refreshed and developed a new way of thinking about society and indeed, to some extent, diversity.

    Of course, the important and critically developmental aspects of global movement of peoples, particularly the Windrush generation, which came over to the UK to help rebuild and to work in British society. Changes to attitudes towards women and work, again - in part - driven by labour requirements during the wars and a range of other societal, sociological, broader political changes.

    And the Race Relations Act 1965, with hindsight, was a very, very timid and fairly limited piece of legislation that effectively prohibited a small amount of discrimination in what were called places of public resort. Since then, we've had over a dozen separate pieces of legislation until the Equality Act 2010, which I'm going to be talking more about in a moment which, as we will see, covers a much wider range of discrimination in more parts of society for more identities or what are called protected characteristics.

    Now, most areas of public life, employment, goods, services and facilities, education, of course, including universities, and a range of public bodies and third sector and private organisations are all, in one way or another, required to take steps to mitigate inequality and advance diversity and inclusion. And again, I will talk more about that in a moment.

    The need for a new approach to inequality

    On the screen, you'll see two of the more notorious aspects of historic oppression. First of all, a picture of a sign in a window of what looks to me like a bed and breakfast, which horribly excludes Irish people, black people and even more horribly equating them with dogs from eligibility to occupy such properties. And then, of course, the other picture of demands for equal pay from women for the work that they were doing, which was equal to those of men.

    Those are just two of the examples of the societal changes which arose at the time and which called for a new approach to equality, a legislative approach which recognised the inherent rights of marginalised people to fairness.

    What do we mean by equality?

    I wanted to flag the question, the rhetorical question about what we mean by equality, and this is the last bullet point on that slide. Initially, equality - legislatively at least - was designed to focus on equality of treatment, how individuals were thought of.

    That soon evolved into something very similar - equality of opportunity. And both of those things are probably the least controversial, the most accepted areas of legislative obligation. The idea that nobody should be disadvantaged for a reason, for an irrelevant reason.

    So, if you're in a race, if you take the example or the metaphor of a race, nobody should have to start the race with a disadvantage, which is unrelated to their ability to run that race. And hence irrelevant considerations like the identities in the protected characteristics should be outlawed.

    But there is a growing understanding, particularly arising from the structural nature of oppression that simply affording equal opportunities is not enough or may not be enough, it depends on your viewpoint, because structurally there may still be disadvantages, even if individually no one is actually discriminated against. And so, there are some legal obligations to focus on equality of outcomes. For example, pay gap reporting is about outcomes, and there are a range of other initiatives as well. Positive action provisions are about outcomes.

    But I also wanted to flag another potential way of understanding equality, which is that which is prevalent in human rights legislation and jurisprudence. Equality of dignity - in some respects that's some of the most interesting areas of equality, law and practise because it's not about fairness in a race or equality of outcomes in an organisation. It's about a focus on the inherent humanness or dignity of everybody.

    It does raise questions about what does that mean for practise, what does that mean for a university or a police force or a corner shop or any organisation? But the challenge it gives to us is the requirement to think about the essential humanness of everyone, regardless of anything else.

    Public Sector Equality Duty

    So, I've talked a bit about the public sector equality duty, that's a slide which spells it out in more detail. And it is each university's governing body to proactively take steps to drive this forward.

    International treaties

    Internationally there are a range of treaties which underpin these obligations. So, I set out a number of UN treaties there.

    The ones in bold, which are the last five, all directly impact on equality, diversity and inclusion: The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    The last bullet there, the European Convention on Human Rights, isn't a UN treaty, but I've put it in there nonetheless. It comes from the Council of Europe, and it is what has led to the Human Rights Act, which of course, is now part of domestic legislation in Britain.

    I hope some of that was useful and interesting, and I very much welcome any thoughts.

    Thanks very much.

Understanding protected characteristics

  • Video transcript

    David Ruebain: Understanding protected characteristics

    Hello, everybody. My name is David Ruebain. I'm the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion in Sussex University. Thanks very much for watching this briefing on equality, diversity and inclusion.

    So, I mentioned earlier that there are nine protected characteristics. That is the legal term for identities which the law recognises and for which organisations like universities and others have specific obligations to protect and to advance. I'll run through them briefly.


    Age is a protected characteristic and that covers all ages, except that in respect of discrimination in the area of goods, facilities, services and public functions it's only applied to those aged 18 or over.


    Disability, that is a broad and open-ended definition. It's a different definition than that which you might find in other legislation, for example, covering special educational needs or welfare benefits or housing, or other ways in which disability might be defined. The definition of disability in the Equality Act is one which covers those with an impairment, which is a medical or quasi medical condition, and that can be a physical impairment, a sensory impairment, blindness or deafness.

    It can be a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia or dyspraxia. It can be a neurodiverse condition such as autism or ADHD. It can be a mental health condition and providing it's a long-term condition, which means broadly that it has lasted or will likely last for at least twelve months, and also that it has a substantial impact on day-to-day activities, then a person is disabled for the purposes of this legislation.


    And then we come to race, and actually what I should also say is that the campaigning for and demands for legislative protection to reduce and eliminate racism was mirrored in other parts of the world. And of course, in the UK, there was quite a close relationship between campaigning and legal developments here and the broader civil rights movement that was central to societal development in the US, and there were similar activities and events in other countries as well.

    In the UK, race as a protected characteristic covers people on the basis of their colour, their nationality and their national or ethnic origin or heritage. And so, it's quite a broad definition and deliberately so, so as to endeavour to try and afford some protection for people who are discriminated against, oppressed, marginalised, disadvantaged for any reason relating to their race, heritage, nationality and so on.

    Religion or belief

    Religion or belief is also covered. Now, religions are not every single faith or religion, but pretty much all of the main global religions. But also, beliefs are covered, and examples of beliefs which the courts have held to be protected include atheism, environmentalism, humanism, socialism and gender critical beliefs that those are all ones which have been tested in cases that have gone to the Employment Tribunal or beyond.

    It also is a protected characteristic which protects people with no religion or belief. Sometimes people identify as atheists in that regard. And again, it's a recognition that people with such an identity may be oppressed, marginalised, disadvantaged or otherwise discriminated against.

    Sexual orientation

    Sexual orientation is protected. That covers lesbians, gays, heterosexuals and bisexual people. And of course, there are increasing numbers of other words used to describe such people, queer people and so on, and those would be covered as well.


    Sex is a particular protected characteristic relating to men and women.

    Gender reassignment

    Gender reassignment is not the same as the broader definition, which trans people will use to identify themselves. It's a narrower definition covering those who have proposed, started or completed a process to change their sex. It is, however, a wider group than those holding a gender recognition certificate, so it's a very particular definition that's contained in the Equality Act.

    Pregnancy and maternity

    Pregnancy and maternity is covered.

    Marital and civil partnership status

    Marital and civil partnership status is also covered.

    Socioeconomic status

    And critically socioeconomic status or class is not covered. Interestingly, in 2009, when what is now the Equality Act 2010 was still a bill being navigated through parliament, there were many who were trying to have socioeconomic status also added to the bill, to the legislation, at least in some form in a perhaps limited way. And in fact, sections one and two of the Equality Act 2010 does create a very basic public sector duty regarding socioeconomic status. I'll come on to public sector duties in a moment. But those provisions have never been brought into force in Britain by successive governments.

    However, in Scotland and in Wales, respectively, in 2018 and in 2021, those national jurisdictions brought in their own provisions to require particularly public bodies to have regard to the impact on socioeconomic status of their work. And of course, as a university, as a thoroughgoing fee capped university, we have obligations to the Office for Students, particularly through our Access and Participation Plan requirements, to recognise and address disadvantage based on socioeconomic status as measured in a number of ways.


    The final bullet point I've put there is intersectionality. That's really a recognition that in thinking about identities and in thinking about the ways that people can be underrepresented or disadvantaged, it is increasingly important to look at the combined nature of identities.

    For example, not just women through the prism of sexism, male domination and misogyny, or Black and minoritised ethnic people through the prism of racism. But, for example, Black women and the particular and distinctive ways in which they may be oppressed, effectively.

    The work on intersectionality is growing not just in Sussex, but really in many organisations and theoretically through a range of academics, writers and thinkers. And it's worth noting the critical work of Kimberly Crenshaw, who is a Black woman academic who wrote extensively about this and whose work has led to many other people thinking and writing about this important understanding of oppression and exclusion.

Tackling underrepresentation and structural inequality

  • Video transcript

    David Ruebain: Tackling underrepresentation and structural inequality

    Hello, everybody. My name is David Ruebain. I'm the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion in Sussex University. Thanks very much for watching this briefing on equality, diversity and inclusion.

    Preventing discrimination

    So, I mentioned earlier with the Race Relations Act 1965 that the legislation was very limited in its scope and in its ambition. Now the range of legislation that have evolved from that, as is effectively contained in the 2010 Act, covers direct and indirect discrimination and for disabled people, disability related discrimination. It also covers victimisation and harassment. So, all of those are provisions which require employers, universities, goods, services and facilities providers and others to do things to prevent that type of discrimination, victimisation and harassment.

    For disabled people in particular, there is also a specific requirement to make reasonable adjustments. That is a recognition of the fact that true equality for disabled people won't come about through the same treatment. In fact, that's probably true - not probably, certainly true - for those who other identities as well. But specifically for disabled people, changes in arrangements are required in order to allow for an inclusive environment, and there is therefore an obligation to make reasonable adjustments. Again, this is mirrored in other countries' legislation as well.

    Proactively tackling discrimination

    Very importantly, from my perspective at least, public bodies - including universities - have what's called a PSED or a public sector equality duty. This is a proactive obligation beyond their requirements not to discriminate, victimise, harass and make reasonable adjustments. Additional requirements for universities and other public bodies to promote equality, eliminate discrimination, and - I think this is very, very useful and interesting - promote good relations between different communities.

    So, in other words, it's not enough just to not do bad things. It's important to proactively take steps, and I think that's where a lot of the critical work in public bodies, including universities, can take place.

    Positive action

    There are also other specific obligations - pay gap reporting. There are rights to take positive action. Positive action is not the same as positive discrimination. Positive discrimination is broadly unlawful. There are one or two exceptions to that in British law. Positive action, however, are steps which are taken to recognise and ameliorate disadvantage.

    That might be, for example, targeted advertising where an employer finds that it has a big underrepresentation of people, say, from Black communities. It could be targeted at advertising in media that particularly reaches Black people. It could be mentoring schemes that focus on underrepresented groups. It could be training or shadowing schemes.

    There are a range of initiatives and that allows employers and others to proactively take steps to, let's say in the case of employment, increase a pipeline of candidates from underrepresented groups.

    Institutional and structural discrimination

    A critical area of development is the growing understanding that discrimination, oppression, disadvantage, underrepresentation is not only about behaviour, it's not only about people who have malign intent or even indifferent intent. It is about the fact that structures and systems and arrangements have evolved historically, from times where oppression was embedded.

    This is particularly well illustrated by the McPherson report into the police investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. One of the many awful things about that was that to a considerable extent at least, the police investigation was botched, such that at least some of the perpetrators escaped justice.

    When the Labour government under Tony Blair came into power in 1997, Jack Straw, the home secretary, delivered on a commitment that he'd made by instigating a commission of enquiry into the police investigation of that murder under Lord MacPherson and Lord MacPherson produced a report which famously coined the phrase 'institutional racism'.

    In fact, institutional racism was an attempt to get away from just trying to identify who was the individual racist or the bad apple in the barrel or whatever, and say that the problem went beyond that. It went to thinking about how cultures could effectively deliver racist outcomes. And alongside that, critical race theory took a similar, although distinctive approach around legalistic oppression and racism.

    The social model of disability, which was an understanding that evolved in the 1970s onwards, that the experience of disabled people, the oppression that disabled people faced arose as much because of society's response to people with impairments, people with medical conditions, as it did from individual behaviours. There was a whole suite, a whole range of things which evolved and led to the determination to have a legislative response, a societal, a structural response to oppression, disadvantage and underrepresentation.

You can also view latest Inclusive Sussex updates from David Ruebain.

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