"The civil rights marches of the 60s and 70s called for British Rights for British Citizens. It is inexcusable that after decades of struggle, peace talks and progress, the UK government continues to shirk its responsibility of offering protection to all people in the UK"
The Equality Act came into force on 1st October 2010, introducing new protection from discrimination in the workplace and wider society. Before the Act came into existence, protection from discrimination was piecemeal and many victims of discrimination found themselves unable to enforce their rights in the Tribunal or court.
Northern Ireland has featured heavily in political discourse recently as more and more people are aware that the Abortion Act 1967 and the recent Equal Marriage Act do not extend to Northern Ireland.
However, few people are aware that the Equality Act does not apply in Northern Ireland. The Act itself notes that Equal opportunities and discrimination are ‘transferred matters’ under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. However, as will be discussed below, the protections offered in the Equality Act cover Human Rights protection, which remains in Westminster’s remit.
I am training as an employment rights lawyer in England. I find it ludicrous that when my family from back home call me to ask for advice, I am unable to assist as the legislation is so different. My family are not political, but are baffled that employment rights and legal protection from discrimination is not uniform across the UK.
In some respects, the protection in Northern Ireland is broader. For example, there is an explicit ban on discrimination on the basis of political opinion. The Equality Act 2010 does include protection from discrimination on the basis of ‘belief’, but many organisations interpret this narrowly and this protection is difficult to invoke.
However, the failure to extend the Equality Act has led to serious gaps in the legal protection in Northern Ireland.
There is no explicit equivalent age discrimination provision in the Northern Irish legislation (although age is listed as a protected characteristic in the general duty in the Northern Ireland Act). This leads to a lack of protection, particularly for those facing discrimination outside of an employment scenario.
It is perhaps in relation to disability that the failure to extend the Equality Act has the biggest impact. In Northern Ireland, the Malcolm decision still applies. The EA introduced protection from indirect discrimination to overcome some of the impact of this decision. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities previously stated that the Malcolm decision made the UK less likely to meet its obligations under international disability discrimination standards.
The definition of disability is different from the rest of the UK. Rather than a general definition, in Northern Ireland, an impairment will only constitute a disability if it affects a specified list of daily activity.
The gap between Northern Irish legal protection from discrimination and the rest of the UK has been criticised by other UN bodies. As early as 2011, the UN Committee on the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination recommended that Northern Ireland take immediate steps to introduce a single equality law, or that the EA 2010 be extended.
Earlier this year, CEDAW pointed out that there was a worryingly low level of protection against sex discrimination in Northern Ireland and reinforced the call for a single piece of equality legislation. Despite their plea in 2013, no action was taken by the government and there was little to no engagement with CEDAW.
Sadly, it has been a recurring theme in discussions about Northern Ireland that the vulnerable and minorities are offered less protection that the rest of the UK. Perhaps it is therefore unsurprising that the legislative framework also falls short of international standards. These are Human Rights issues, which mean that Westminster remains responsible. The UK Government needs to step up. The civil rights marches of the 60s and 70s called for British Rights for British Citizens. It is inexcusable that after decades of struggle, peace talks and progress, the UK government continues to shirk its responsibility of offering protection to all people in the UK.