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The Equality Act is a dangerous joke

Jason On 1 October the Equality Act 2010 became law. Its stated intention is to end discrimination in the workplace. The likely result is it will poison relationships between colleagues and employer-employee. It urges us all to view ourselves as victims in need of state intervention to police our working lives.

The legislation introduces the concept of ‘discrimination by perception’ and ‘association’ to more ‘protected characteristics’ which is particularly problematic. No discrimination needs to have taken place for a case to be made against a co-worker or employer. The ‘victim’ just has to perceive discrimination. The perceived discrimination doesn’t even need to be against someone in the workplace. You can feel discriminated against because you know a Muslim and someone makes a joke about Burkas.

The act attempts to protect employees from offence. What it does is undermines the ability of people to sort out issues between themselves. In fact trying to sort out a problem between yourselves could itself be considered harassment. If someone is offended by something you have said, a joke for instance, explaining yourself to them could be seen as rubbing it in, multiplying the offence felt. Your intentions are not important. The psychological state of the offended person is primary.

This deeply illiberal act encourages everyone to see their colleagues not as allies with a common interest who can group together to fight redundancies for example. Rather they are rivals, racists, sexual predators and sexists.


Anyone who has worked in an office over the last 10-15 years will be aware that it has become increasingly necessary to watch what you say. There is always someone who might take offence easily. This legislation urges us to view all colleagues in this way. Further it sanctions state intervention to sort out everyday difficulties.

Banter between colleagues in the workplace is one of the things that makes many jobs worth having. Loyalty to colleagues can often make someone stay in a job they dislike. Tedious tasks which form some part of most jobs are made sufferable by chit-chat and occasionally ribbing from workmates. Yet it is these positive aspects of workplace relations that are being undermined.

In the past people had no problem coping in the workplace or with being offended. A friend of mine who worked in a factory in the 1970s still talks fondly of the practical jokes played on him, and the ones he played on his work mates like the initiation ceremonies played on 16 year old apprentices by the women in the factory – stripping them naked, tying them to a chair and covering them in sticky ‘Barrier Cream’ and tissue paper.

Or during a round of wage negotiations, someone put up a sign saying the factory was getting a visit from a Russian delegation who were coming to inspects parts for the Soviet Air force. People were advised that they would need to learn the words of The Red Flag, and song sheets could be obtained from the boss. The boss, already tense from the negotiations, was inundated by workers asking for words to the socialist anthem.

More everyday activities like giving people ‘the bumps’ on their birthday were concealed from the foreman by the person on the receiving end pretending they had fainted in the heat. “Of course we could have got the sack for any of these antics”, said my friend, “but we covered up for each other”. “Whatever you did to someone they always got you back”.

The relationships we form at work are some of the most important ones we have because they arise in the public sphere and are based on common interests. This would once have been expressed through, amongst other things, union membership and drinking together. Today, asking people if they fancy a pint after work could be construed as…well who knows? That’s the problem.

Society is more atomised today than ever before. The last thing we need is for it to become even more so.

Jason Smith is co-convenor, Birmingham Salon and on the committee of this year’s Battle of Ideas festival 30-31 October

Posted on by Big Brother Watch Posted in Privacy

18 Responses to The Equality Act is a dangerous joke

  1. Andrew Ampers Taylor

    Jason, you’ve offended me because I am retired and don’t have a job. Where is the tribunal I can take you to please? I am sure I’ll have a case!

  2. vervet

    I suggest that the best response to this is for as many people to report as many cases of discrimination, as often as possible, with no regard to whether they are spurious or not.
    After all, if the ‘victim’ only needs to perceive discrimination, how could the police successfully challenge that their accusation is malicious or frivolous ?
    They would very rapidly cease to respond.

  3. Anonymous

    I remember when working for the Civil Service I had an issue of an employee consistently bullying me which I attempted to resolve one-to-one.
    The employee immediately got the union involved refusing to discuss the issue with me, and the union tried to encourage me to accuse her of racism. As soon as I told them where to get off they didn’t want to know.
    The more you professionalise issues in the workplace the more you dehumanise the people and create a far more serious issue.

  4. Robert

    Generally I think you have a point, but this:
    “the initiation ceremonies played on 16 year old apprentices by the women in the factory – stripping them naked, tying them to a chair and covering them in sticky ‘Barrier Cream’ and tissue paper.”
    is sexual assault, plain and simple. The perpetrators should have been jailed. This is also not a case that could easily have been worked out one to one due to the difference in power and influence between the apprentices and more established workers.

  5. Mark Harrop

    Bugger off, Anonymous! Am pretty sure many who’ve gone thru such initiations will look back on them fondly.

  6. Steve

    Can we start a campaign of chaos everywhere, by making complaints about anyone anywhere, who we may not necessarily know, about ‘perceived’ offence? It is impossible to disprove. We can kill this humourless, repressive act by getting it ignored. An ignored law effectively doesn’t exist. Tally Ho, everyone.

  7. BillyBloggs

    problem is in some workplaces, the victim of the spurious accusation, will also have to be referred to the ISA, under a legal duty by the employer for a barring decision. Harridan Harperson, the bitter twisted mysandrist architect of this chaotic legislation, needs to be taken out and shot to put us out of her misery

  8. Leynos

    Your definition of “discrimination by perception” appears to be incorrect.
    From http://www.equalities.gov.uk/pdf/401727_EqualityAct2010_Discriminationt_acc.pdf :
    “Discrimination by perception
    Discrimination by perception happens when a person is discriminated against because they are thought to have a particular protected characteristic
    when in fact they do not. If you discriminate against people because you think they are transsexual or
    gay, for example, then they will be protected even if they do not have these protected characteristics.”
    I.e., a person harassing a colleague that they incorrectly suspect of being gay would be treated no differently were the harassed party actually gay.
    Of course, that says nothing about the provisions in place to protect against this kind of action before the act came into effect, but it seems kind of sensible to me.

  9. Slacker

    “Bugger off, Anonymous! Am pretty sure many who’ve gone thru such initiations will look back on them fondly.”
    Spoken like a true bully.

  10. TJM

    Let’s get a bit of balance here. The Equality Act does little more than consolidate existing legislation on sex, race, disability etc. As for the ‘perception’ issue, this arose because of a case of a young man who was subjected to vicious homophobic bullying at work. He lost his claim at ET because, although his ‘colleagues’ thought he was gay because of the way he spoke and dressed, he actually WASN’T gay – and the law as drafted at the time only protected those were actually gay. This new Act redresses this problem. And yes, Anonymous, I strongly suspect that you ARE a bully.

  11. TJM

    Sorry Anonymous, I meant ‘Robert.’

  12. TJM

    Very sorry to both ‘Anonymous’ and ‘Robert’ (I must need new glasses) My comment about the ‘bully’ should have been directed at Mark Harrop.

  13. Dave

    “The initiation ceremonies played on 16 year old apprentices by the women in the factory… is sexual assault, plain and simple…”
    Bloody rubbish – You obviously never worked in a factory back in the days of genuine (working class) “sexual liberation”! :-)

  14. Jason Smith

    TJM – “Let’s get a bit of balance here”
    The Equality Act is not simply a matter of bringing together a whole heap of discrimination legislation into one package. For a start it contains a number of new bits of legislation. The most notable of these is the concept of ‘third-party harrassment’. So while it was already an offence for an employer to pick on an employee on the basis of race or gender, an employer will now be liable for any employee ‘harrassment’, too. This means that if someone at work feels that someone else’s comments ‘violate their dignity’ or create an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’, they can sue their employer. For those perhaps unfamiliar with the lexicon of offence, this means that office banter and office bitching could become criminal offences. All it takes is for one person to deem an interaction a ‘violation of their dignity’ and in comes the state to arbitrate.

  15. TJM

    Jason – There are a number of fundamental flaws in your response.
    “this means that if someone at work feels that someone else’s comments ‘violate their dignity’ or create an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’, they can sue their employer.”
    NOTHING NEW HERE, I’M AFRAID. THIS IS KNOWN AS THE DOCTRINE OF VICARIOUS LIABILITY AND SINCE THE ADVENT OF ANTI-DISCRIMINATION LAW, HAS APPLIED WHERE WORK COLLEAGUES COMMIT ACTS OF DISCRIMINATION. THE EMPLOYER WILL BE VULNERABLE IF HE DOESN’T SHOW THAT HE TRIED TO PREVENT IT.
    “For those perhaps unfamiliar with the lexicon of offence, this means that office banter and office bitching could become criminal offences.”
    VERY UNLIKELY UNLESS IT CONSTITUTES RACIST OR HOMOPHOBIC BULLYING – AND THEN SHOULD THE STATE INTERVENE IT WOULD DEALT WITH UNDER OTHER PROVISIONS OF CRIMINAL LAW – NOT, THE EQUALITY ACT WHICH IS PRIMARILY CIVIL LAW.

  16. Jason Smith

    You could make the same point about the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 – in fact the police already have. They find it just as confusing as everyone else. This is in some ways even worse. The state very rarely, and only under intense pressure, gives up powers or re-writes laws just because they don’t make sense or are ‘very unlikely’ to be used. Rather it means they can be interpreted in any way that seems to fit particular circumstances.
    Racist or homophobic bullying – well that can mean anything these days can’t it? Bullying has been re-defined to such an extent that it can now mean not including someone in activities and therefore causing them emotional stress.
    What this means is that discrimination becomes a free-floating term to be applied to any relationship in which one party feels aggrieved. When feelings of victimhood are enough to sustain an accusation of discrimination, so people will self-censor and wilfully inhibit themselves – not because they actually really wanted to bully someone, but because they are worried that this is how their behaviour could be perceived.
    It is about as far as we’ve got towards the idea of thought police.

  17. TJM

    But the point I was trying to make is that the Equality Act is NOT criminal legislation (with one very small exception relating to taxis). When you made this comment:
    “For those perhaps unfamiliar with the lexicon of offence, this means that office banter and office bitching could become criminal offences.”
    you implied that it WAS criminal legislation. It is predominantly civil law so nothing to do with the state.
    Drawing the line between bullying and over-sensitivity has never been easy but the law makes an attempt to tread this fine line. Are you suggesting that we let bullies get away with it?
    And finally:
    “Racist or homophobic bullying – well that can mean anything these days can’t it?”
    No it doesn’t mean ‘anything.’ It means bullying on grounds of someone’s race, colour or sexual orientation – and it doesn’t belong in this century – nor is it perpetrated by decent, civilised people.

  18. Walter Prout

    It was only a matter of time until they placed a DOG COLLAR on human beings. Am sure that this is meant for both the private sector as well as the Government. My question is this : What’s the maximum punishment for crimes of this nature? Death by Hanging or Having your TONGUE ripped out ?

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