A history of race discrimination law

Does this equip us for the future?

Having celebrated Black History month in October, November sees us mark 55 years since the introduction of the first UK law tackling race discrimination. We take this opportunity to look back at the history of race discrimination legislation in this country, where we are now, and ideas to support employers taking steps to address race discrimination in the workplace in future.

A potted history of race discrimination legislation

Prior to 1965 race discrimination was, shockingly, entirely lawful in the UK.  However, there had been calls for action to prohibit discrimination for many years, echoing movements in the United States which had already introduced the Civil Rights Act in 1964.  Finally, came the Race Relations Act in 1965, which for the first time prohibited discrimination on grounds of race in public places. It also established the Race Relations Board, which was given responsibility for conciliation of discrimination complaints (but had no enforcement powers).

It was clear that the first Race Relations Act did not go far enough, effectively only prohibiting discrimination in pubs, clubs and shops. Crucially, it gave no protection from discrimination in employment or housing, thus enabling continued injustice to flourish, restricting the life chances of so many people. It took a further 3 years for this to be remedied under a new piece of legislation and the Race Relations Act 1968was passed, extending protection against discrimination to include those additional protections badly needed, such as in employment and housing.

It was some nine years later, when the first more dynamic response to tackling subtler forms of racism was introduced. The Race Relations Act 1976 brought in the concept of indirect discrimination and for the first time gave employees the ability to take their complaints of discrimination in the workplace to industrial tribunals, as they were then called. The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) was also formed, taking on responsibility for enforcing the legislation and for conducting research on race relations matters. It was succeeded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007.

2010 saw the advent of a much broader approach to legislation for dealing with discrimination in all of its guises. The Equality Act 2010 consolidated the law against a variety of forms of discrimination, and brought the range of recognised protected characteristics into one place. A considerable body of case law continues to develop our understanding of the many forms which discrimination can take, whether it amounts to direct or indirect, victimisation or harassment.

Clearly it is essential that we have legislation in place to protect the workplace rights of minority groups, but what has become increasingly apparent is that there are more fundamental barriers to equality in the workplace. One of the very many developments of the Black Lives Matter movement is that more significant numbers of employers are now looking more deeply at this question, with an emerging recognition that the pace of change has been too slow. Many businesses are now beginning to take a radically different approach to removing barriers to workplace diversity, inclusion and progression and we see evidence of a variety of practical steps, including:

  • Developing a formal diversity strategy, especially in relation for more diverse recruitment to the senior roles in the business. A recent survey showed that only 52% of businesses have a formal diversity strategy. Of the other businesses surveyed, 24% were making no effort to attract and recruit more diverse candidates to board-level jobs and 19% were taking no steps to address diversity issues in recruitment and selection processes generally
  • Encouraging genuine reflection on the issues and provide learning opportunities such as unconscious bias training. Without an understanding of the broader issues underpinning discrimination, success in making a change is likely to be hindered
  • Reviewing and addressing any ethnic pay gap alongside the gender pay gap review – and publicising any progress
  • Ensuring meaningful and up to date equality and diversity policies, and that managers and staff are regularly trained in these areas
  • Ensuring that any allegations of discrimination are taken seriously and dealt with promptly – adopting a zero tolerance approach to harassment and bullying from the top down
  • Taking action to support ethnic minority career progression, including embedding mentoring, reverse mentoring and sponsorship (this is one of the actions recommended by the Business in the Community’s Race at Work Charter)
  • Taking any additional steps needed to create an anti-racist environment in the workplace – guidance on how to do this has been published by Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA England) in collaboration with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) and Business in the Community (BITC). Among other things the guidance recommends reviewing policies through an anti-racist lens, understanding the diversity of their workforce at all levels and addressing any lack of representation in leadership roles.


If you would like further advice tailored to your particular circumstances, please contact us.