The equalities legislation poses unresolved philosophical and practical problems (what sort of equality? whose rights trump whose?), but in one form or another it is surely here to stay. There is little public appetite to return to the days – now more than 50 years old – before the Race Relations Act, when landlords advertising for tenants could post notices in their windows reading: “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”. Labour drove through the Race Relations Act and the Sex Discrimination Act, but next week sees the 20th anniversary of a Conservative piece of anti-discrimination legislation.
The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 was designed by William Hague and largely steered through the Commons by him. (Alistair Burt, Hague’s successor as Minister for the Disabled, took the legislation through its closing stages.) One view of the Act is that it was a study in caution, since it did not, as Labour’s earlier laws did, outlaw direct and indirect discrimination. Another is that it was “the most radical of our discrimination laws, since it went further in requiring employers not to discriminate arbitrarily against disabled people”. It also enshrined the notion of “reasonable adjustment” into discrimination law.
Hague has repeatedly said the Act, passed early in his long career on the Conservative front bench, is his greatest political achievement. Other disability discrimination legislation has been passed since then, and all it has now been rolled into the Equalities Act, but his Act deserves to be honoured as part of the great tradition of Conservative social reforming legislation, alongside Disraeli’s Dwelling Improvement Act and Factory Act, Neville Chamberlain’s Local Government Act, Rab Butler’s Education Act and Thatcher’s Right to Buy.
Tomorrow, we will carry an interview by Andrew Gimson with Hague about the Act and, on Thursday, Justin Tomlinson, his successor as Minister for Disabled People, will write about the anniversary. There is much more to be done. Iain Duncan Smith has played his part in helping to create Britain’s present “jobs miracle”. But one of the groups of people that the Work Programme and other Government schemes are not sufficiently tailored to reach are disabled people – particularly men with learning difficulties, according to some insider accounts. The challenge of social reform is never-ending.