A major review into the UK’s gender discrimination laws is to be launched amid fears a potential post-Brexit move towards a lower regulation economy could see protections eroded.
The nine-month inquiry by the Fawcett Society is to be led by Dame Laura Cox, a retired high court judge, assisted by a series of lawyers, academics and others.
Areas of equality law to be examined include measures to guarantee equal pay, protection for part-time workers and during pregnancy, and combating so-called intersectional discrimination, where someone faces potential disadvantage for not just their gender but another area, for example race or religion.
Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, which marked its 150th anniversary last year, said the organisation had wanted to examine “a number of gaps in our equality legislation” even before the Brexit vote, but that there seemed a greater need than ever.
While the government had promised to protect equality and the rights of workers following departure from the EU, Smethers said, the concern was that some protections could be lost almost inadvertently amid wider changes.
Both Theresa May and her chancellor, Philip Hammond, have warned the EU that if Britain does not secure a sufficiently good deal on departure the UK could strike out alone with a low-tax economy designed to attract investment.
“The real worry we’ve got is that those kind of assurances are actually quite superficial, and they are probably a second order commitment compared to the need to secure a competitive economy, and how we compete if we’re outside the trading bloc,” Smethers said.
“This fear of a race to the bottom and becoming this low-regulation, low-tax economy is, I think, a very real one.
“The prime minister may well mean it now when she says it, and has to her credit got a good track record on women’s rights in a number of respects, but I think she’s going to be forced into a corner where it’s going to be very hard for her to retain that, when the pressure is to compete on other terms.”
She added: “There’s only so many battles we’ll be able to fight in one go. We can’t defend everything at the same time, so things will slip through. We’re trying to push in the other direction.”
The so-called great repeal bill, which will incorporate EU rules in UK law, had the potential for some protections to be eliminated at a later date, Smethers said.
The Fawcett Society is behind one of the dozens of amendments to the government bill to trigger article 50, which begins Brexit, seeking to prevent protections being repealed.
However, Smethers said the point of the review was not just to cling on to what already existed but to prompt a more fundamental rethink, for example on companies abiding by regulations.
“That’s where we’re getting the balance wrong,” she said. “Organisations need to have more responsibility placed on them. It’s very difficult for the individual woman to bring a claim.
“It’s not just about trying to protect the minimum. It’s about trying to create a forward-looking idea of what sort of country we want to be, and where we want to get to.”
The society is inviting people to send in submissions to the review, which will report in the autumn.
Cox, who will chair it, said it was an “important and timely project”.
She said: “Some of the basic rights that we now take for granted – pregnancy and maternity rights, part-time workers’ rights, equal pay for work of equal value – are all at risk if the UK becomes a low-regulation economy.”