Protecting and promoting equality and human rights: assessing the impact of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

Published 06/06/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) plays an important role in championing and ensuring the principles of equality and human rights are put into practice in Wales, and on Tuesday the Senedd will debate its 2020/21 annual impact report.

“If everyone gets a fair chance in life, we all thrive”

The EHRC’s work is guided by a review of how Wales is performing on equality and human rights. The most recent ‘Is Wales Fairer?’ report in 2018 recommended implementing the socio-economic duty and highlighted the persistence of racial inequality. The report provided an evidence base which informed the EHRC’s three strategic goals:

  • To make sure we have strong foundations on which to build a more equal and rights-respecting society.
  • To ensure that people’s life chances aren’t held back by barriers in their way.
  • To protect the rights of people in the most vulnerable situations.

Building a more equal society

Covid-19 and the measures put in place to control its spread has had an impact on everyone in Wales, but some people have been affected more than others. Striking a balance between protecting public health, making decisions that did not disproportionately impact certain groups and not exacerbating existing inequalities was extremely difficult.

Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs) can help decision-makers understand the results of a decision and avoid unintended consequences or discrimination. Under the Public Sector Equality Duty it is a statutory requirement to carry out an EIA.

The EHRC impact report notes that during the pandemic there were instances where the Welsh Government made decisions without upholding the Public Sector Equality Duty and carrying out an Equality Impact Assessment (EIA).It argues that this created uncertainty as to whether “equality and human rights standards were considered when deciding COVID-19 policy and legislation.” Following calls by the EHRC to uphold the Duty, the Welsh Government published an EIA for each set of COVID-19 regulations.

There are however concerns about the current effectiveness of EIAs and their role in ensuring a more equal society. For instance the Wales Centre for Public Policy notes broad agreement that EIAs “were frequently seen as tick-box, bureaucratic tools within Welsh Government.” Their study did however recognise the potential for EIAs to play a more “substantive” role in the policy process and contribute to a more equal Wales. To better understand how public services use EIAs, Audit Wales are currently carrying out a consultation into “what a good EIA looks like.”

Ensuring people’s life chances aren’t held back by barriers in their way

The cost of living crisis will effect most people across Wales, but the poorest households in Wales are likely to be hit hardest. The Socio-economic Duty was commenced in Wales in 2021 and aims to improve outcomes for people on low incomes. The duty requires relevant public authorities to consider how they can improve socio-economic outcomes when making strategic decisions.

In its role as regulator of the 2010 Equality Act the EHRC has the powers to promote and provide advice and guidance, and publish research on implementing the Socio-economic Duty. However, its ability to undertake enforcement against a public body is limited, as the Equality Act does not define socio-economic status as a protected characteristic.

Where a public body does not comply with the duty, the EHRC will however be able to challenge through a judicial review or could support an individual who wants to take action.

The Equalities and Social Justice Committee heard evidence from the authors of the ‘Strengthening and Advancing Equality’ report that judicial review can be difficult to pursue. They explained that due to the costs involved, cuts to legal aid and a lack of awareness of their rights “people in Wales are less likely to seek judicial review than people across all different regions of England”.

The EHRC carried out its own review of the duty in March 2021 and identified a number of issues with implementation, including public bodies’ lack of clarity about how to implement the duty.

Informing efforts to tackle race inequality

The EHRC, along with many other organisations, community groups and individuals have been involved in the production of the Welsh Government’s draft Race Equality Action Plan. The EHRC gave evidence to the Welsh Government COVID-19 Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Advisory group, provided a briefing to the Welsh Government which set out the EHRC’s ’s priorities for addressing structural race inequality in Wales and was also a member of the Steering Group which guided the development of the Plan.

A final version of the Plan is expected soon and the EHRC will also report on its inquiry into the experiences of ethnic minority workers in lower paid jobs in the health and social care sectors during the pandemic.

Protecting the rights of people in the most vulnerable situations

Some Senedd Members have recently expressed concerns about the UK Government’s direction of travel on human rights, and argued that it could lead to the erosion of the rights of people living in Wales. While human rights are not devolved, they are embedded across a wide range of Welsh legislation and the Welsh Government has taken a number of steps to enhance and strengthen the rights of people living in Wales.

An important element of the Commission’s work is to hold governments to account for complying with human rights obligations. The EHRC’s human rights tracker provides an online tool which analyses progress made by the Welsh and UK governments towards fulfilling their human rights obligations across a range of policy areas.

Recent events have shown that it has become difficult to challenge the UK Government’s legislative agenda on human rights. The EHRC raised human rights issues with the implementation of the Police and Crime and Sentencing and Nationality and Borders Bills, yet both of which became Acts in 2022. They raised concerns during the consultation on repealing the Human Rights Act, yet we heard in the Queens Speech that the UK Government intends to replace it with a Bill of Rights.

How to follow the debate

Members of the Senedd will debate the EHRC’s 2020/21 annual report on Tuesday 7 June 2022. You can watch it on Senedd TV and read the transcript approximately 24 hours later.

Article by Claire Thomas, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales