Theresa May's equality strategy speech

This speech was delivered on 17 November 2010. Political content has been removed and the text here is as written, not as delivered.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

I am delighted to be here today at the Coin Street Community Centre to talk about a subject which is close to my heart.

Equality is not an aside for me; it is not an after-thought or a secondary consideration. It is at the heart of what this coalition government is about.

We have more women MPs than ever before. We have more black and ethnic minority MPs than ever before. We have the first Muslim woman to serve in the Cabinet. We have more openly gay MPs than ever before.

And importantly every single one of them is there because of their talent and ability.

The pace of change wasn’t always as fast as I might like, and there is certainly a long way still to go. But I think that everyone in Britain can be proud that we now have the most diverse parliament in our history.

What We Mean By Equality

For this government the equalities agenda is about fairness: that is, equal treatment and equal opportunity.

It is not right or fair when people are discriminated against because of who they are or what they believe.

And it is not right or fair when the opportunities open to people are not based on their ambition, ability or hard work, but on who their parents are or where they live.

But even as we increase equality of opportunity, some people will always do better than others.

And, certainly, I do not believe in a world where everybody gets the same out of life, regardless of what they put in.

That is why no government should try to ensure equal outcomes for everyone.

But we do need to recognise that in trying to ensure equality of opportunity - the “gap” still matters.

Those growing up in households which have fallen too far behind have fewer opportunities available to them and they are less able to take the opportunities that are available. We see it with families of three generations who have no qualifications and no job.

But you do not improve the lives of those at the bottom by limiting the ambitions and opportunities of others. Instead, we need to design intelligent policies that give those at the bottom real opportunities to make a better life for themselves.

Achieving equality of treatment and equality of opportunity are aims that the vast majority of people would regard as sensible and noble goals for government policy.

But in recent years, equality has become a dirty word because it meant something different. It came to be associated with the worst forms of pointless political correctness and social engineering.

I want to turn around the equalities agenda and I want to change people’s perception of what the government is trying to achieve on equality.

I want us to move away from the identity politics of the past - where government thought it knew all about you because you ticked a box on a form or fitted into a certain category - and instead start to recognise that we are a nation of 62 million individuals. And that means demonstrating that equality is for everyone by making it a part of everyday life.

And I want us to move away from the arrogant notion from government that it knows best. Government can act as a leader, a convenor and an advocate for change. But on its own it will only ever make limited progress. We need to work with people, communities and businesses to empower them to enact change.

Only if we do that; only if we work with the grain of human nature, not against it, will we achieve the fairer, more equal and more prosperous society that we all want to see.

Why Equality matters

We can all agree on our ultimate aim of a better society. But I want to explain why equality of opportunity and equal treatment will help us to achieve that better society.

I think there are three main reasons: moral, social and economic.

Morally, everyone would agree that people have a right to be treated equally and to live their lives free from discrimination. Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of discrimination knows how painful, hurtful and damaging it can be and why we should seek to eliminate it from our society. And anyone who has ever witnessed discrimination would want to stamp it out.

So equality is not just important to us as individuals. It is also essential to our wellbeing as a society. Strong communities are ones where everyone feels like they have got a voice and can make a difference.

And those people within communities who are allowed to fall too far behind are more likely to get caught up in social problems like crime, addiction and unemployment.

That brings me on to the third reason why equality matters. Economically, equality of opportunity is vital to our prosperity. It is central to building a strong, modern economy that benefits from the talents of all of its members. 

The National Audit Office recently estimated that the overall cost to the economy from the failure to fully use the talents of ethnic minorities could be nearly seven billion pounds. Better use of women’s skills could be worth fifteen to twenty three billion pounds each year. We can no longer afford to keep missing out on the economic benefits that greater equality could bring.

So equality is not an add on or an optional extra that we should only care about when money is plentiful - it matters morally, it is important to our well-being as a society and it is crucial to our economy.

UK Has Come a Long Way

As we look at ensuring equality of treatment and enhancing equality of opportunity, it is important to acknowledge that we have come a long way.

As recently as 1967, people like the war hero Alan Turing were prosecuted for homosexual acts between consenting adults. As recently as 1968 it was legal to refuse housing, employment or public services to people because of their ethnic background. And as recently as 1975 it was legal to pay women less than men for exactly the same work.

These examples of discrimination needed to be dealt with. And they needed to be dealt with using the full force of Paliamentary law.

And I am not going to pretend that the last government did nothing. Civil Partnership legislation, for example, marked a great advance for gay rights in this country.

The Old Approach

But these old injustices have been outlawed and we now have some of the most comprehensive equality laws in the world. And yet inequality persists.

Decades after equal pay laws were passed the full time gender pay gap for women stands at over twelve percent, increasing to twenty two percent if part-time employees are included.

Despite new legislation on hate crime, many gay people still suffer from intolerance.

Despite legislation like the Disability Discrimination Act, around a third of disabled people still experience difficulties in accessing goods or services.

And despite some of the longest standing and broadest based race equality laws in Europe, some ethnic minorities still suffer inequalities in education, employment and health - estimates suggest that at least 4 in 10 black men could be on the National DNA Database.

The answer isn’t just more laws, regulations and targets - it’s time for a more intelligent approach.

Just look at the socio-economic duty. It was meant to force public authorities to take into account inequality of outcome when making decisions about their policies.
In reality, it would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked. It would have meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people’s life chances.
But at its worst, it could have meant public spending permanently skewed towards certain parts of the country. Valued public services meant to benefit everyone in the community closed down in some areas and reopened in others.  Council services like bin collections and bus routes designed not on the basis of practical need but on this one politically-motivated target. 

You can’t solve a problem as complex as inequality in one legal clause.
You can’t make people’s lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better. That was as ridiculous as it was simplistic and that is why I am announcing today that we are scrapping the socio-economic duty for good.

We shouldn’t just compensate people for the barriers to opportunity that they face, we should take action to tear down those barriers altogether.

And let me take this opportunity to make one thing clear: fairness includes dealing responsibly with the deficit. It is not “unfair” to tackle the record deficit. What is unfair is leaving our children to pay off the debts.

We must take and we have taken account of how the cuts will affect different parts of society. I know that women rely on public services more than men and I know that more women work in the public sector than men.

But that does not mean we should not deal with the deficit.

If we ignore the situation now, if we allow even more debt to rack up, then we would have to make deeper cuts to public spending in the future and we would face more public sector job losses.

But as we deal with the record deficit, we have chosen to do so in a way that protects the most vulnerable, whether they are men, women or children.

So we will increase child tax credits for the poorest families, protecting against rises in child poverty.

We will increase spending on the NHS in real terms every year.

We will lift 880 thousand of the lowest paid workers out of income tax altogether.

And we will protect the lowest paid public sector workers, the majority of whom are women, from the public sector pay freeze.

And let me also say that I reject the fundamentally flawed idea that tackling the deficit will unfairly hit the single homogeneous group labelled “women”.

There are over 31 million women in the UK - each of them is an individual and each of them will be affected differently by the changes we are making. Consider the woman who runs a small business and who will benefit from our corporation tax changes. Consider the woman who is an employer and who can keep all of her staff because we scrapped the proposed increase in employer national insurance contributions. Consider the woman on the minimum wage who we will take out of tax completely.

A new way of looking at the problem

Part of the problem with this old approach to equalities was that it categorised millions of people according to what box they ticked on a form. It stopped treating people like individuals and instead viewed them as part of some amorphous herd.

The idea that as a person you are defined solely by your gender, by your race or by your religion is as patronising as it is absurd.

Of course I recognise that people can face discrimination because of who they are and disadvantage because of where they’re from. And we will still need specific action to deal with specific problems.

But we need to move beyond defining people simply by their membership of a particular group.

People are individuals.

Recognition of this simple fact allows us to start looking at the problem differently and, importantly, to start looking at the solutions differently.

A new approach

We need our equalities policy to work with the grain of human nature, not against it.

That means government no longer dictating how people should behave.

Instead we need to put in place an architecture to support business and wider society to do the right thing.

We will take a new approach to tackling the causes of inequality. We will use targeted action to deal with its consequences. And we will ensure accountability by shining the light of transparency on organisations, allowing their performance to be challenged and acting as a driver for change.


Of course, money still matters. Nobody is pretending that it doesn’t. But how you spend that money is just as important as how much you spend.

To make a difference, spending needs to be directed at key interventions that will really help to alter someone’s life chances. 

So despite the difficult decisions we have had to make to deal with the deficit, we have prioritised spending on early interventions and on schools.

Over the course of the spending review we will spend over £7billion on a new fairness premium. That will give all disadvantaged two year olds an entitlement to 15 hours a week of pre-school education. It also includes a £2.5billion per year pupil premium to support disadvantaged children. These measures, combined with our plans for extra health visitors and a more focused sure start, will give children the best possible start in life.

So money is important. But there are causes of inequality that cannot simply be solved by spending more and more money. Cultures, attitudes and behaviours can all create barriers to equal opportunities that government alone cannot solve. So government needs to create a framework within which individuals, communities and businesses can bring about change.

Take flexible working. Introducing the right to request flexible working for some was a positive step. But by limiting that right to parents and carers, it perpetuated the idea that flexible working is some form of special treatment.
We will extend the right to request to all, helping to shift behaviour away from the traditional nine to five model of work that can act as a barrier to so many people and that often doesn’t make sense for many modern businesses. Crucially, rather than dictating what employers and employees should do, our approach will provide them with the choice to do what is best for them.

And some of our best companies are already taking up the baton - Tesco is now offering its 340 thousand employees the chance to do more hours that fit in around their other commitments. And some of Britain’s most innovative and successful small and medium sized enterprises are showing that flexible working is good for their businesses as well - companies like the StopGap Group and Metal Assemblies.
Our new system of flexible parental leave will also provide a framework in which parents are able to make the right choices for their family. The current division of maternity and paternity leave limits choice. But it is also a state-endorsed perpetuation of the stereotype that women should take on the lion’s share of caring responsibilities when a couple starts a family.

And we have consulted on removing the default retirement age, giving employees and employers the option to decide what works for them.
So our approach is not about government dictating what people and businesses should do - it’s about giving people and businesses the chance to choose what is right for them. The current framework is not fair, and that’s why we’re changing it.


But the sad reality is that whilst we take action to deal with the causes of inequality, too many people are living with its day to day consequences.

There are areas where direct government action can make a difference.

The DNA database currently treats thousands of innocent citizens like criminals. And this can have a disproportionate effect on some of those already at risk of feeling alienated from the state - like young black men who have been repeatedly stopped and searched and even arrested without ever being found guilty of a crime.

So we will introduce a new system for holding people’s DNA - destroying the records of the innocent whilst putting all those who have committed a crime on to the database.

We can also ensure that we take tough action against those who carry out discrimination and hatred.

So we will give schools the power to take tough action to tackle bullying, including homophobic and transphobic bullying. And we are conducting research on how to prevent and respond to bullying of disabled children and children with Special Educational Needs.

And we also need to correct historical injustices. So I am pleased to announce today that we will introduce measures in the freedom bill so that it is possible for those with old convictions for consensual gay sex to apply for their record to be deleted from the police national computer so that they no longer have to declare them and they won’t show up on criminal record checks.
Accountability and Transparency
To drive change across all of these areas, we need to make organisations more transparent and more accountable.

Last month we stopped pay secrecy clauses being used to hide unfair behaviour in paying men and women differently - that enhanced transparency.

We reshaped plans for the public sector Equality Duty so it now focuses on providing information to enable citizens to hold public bodies to account - that enhanced transparency.

And across government when we published details of salaries, of contracts awarded and of organisational structures - that enhanced transparency. We want the private and voluntary sectors to follow our lead.

As we enhance transparency, we shine a light on the behaviour of government and businesses. That empowers people to hold organisations to account for their behaviour. And that in turn encourages organisations to change their behaviour.

But we want to go further. We will empower local community groups, faith groups, charities and other civic organisations to become more involved in delivering public services. These groups are often better at drawing in under-represented people than government, opening up delivery of public services to a broader range of participants.

Services which are designed by the people who use them are more appropriate for individuals, more responsive to their needs and more effective in delivering the outcomes we want.

From December 2010 we will be testing the Right to Control in five initial Trailblazer areas.

The Right is based on the principle that disabled people are the experts in their own lives and are best placed to decide what support they need and how it should be delivered.

Disabled people taking part will have a legal right to be told how much support they are eligible to receive, to decide and agree the outcomes they want to achieve and will have choice and control over how they receive support.

And we need to also ensure that local government, central government and Parliament are truly representative of the communities they serve. So we are providing extra support to tackle the particular obstacles faced by disabled people who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials and we are establishing internships in all government departments for young people from ethnic minority backgrounds.


As a nation we have come a long way, but there is much still to do.

The reality remains that too many people face barriers to their full potential because of where they come from or who they are, irrespective of their talents and efforts. 

To fix these problems we need a new approach, which reflects our modern society.

An approach that does not pigeon hole vast swathes of the population, but that treats them as the individuals they are.

An approach that deals with the causes of inequality as well as its consequences. And an approach which really brings about changes in behaviour, increases individual choice and enhances transparency. 

We in government will play our part. We will build a framework for equalities within which community groups, charities, businesses and individuals can bring about change.

But it doesn’t just take a Minister and a law to change Britain and to build a fairer society.

In the end, it will take all of us working together to build the strong, modern and fair Britain that we all want to see.

Thank you.


Published 17 November 2010