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The Fallacies, Errors and Confusions In the Equality and Human Rights Commission Report, How Fair Is Britain?

In a report for Civitas, Professor Peter Saunders, the author of Social Mobility Myths, has challenged the fallacies in the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Two Core EHRC Assumptions – Both False

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published its first triennial report on Britain’s ‘progress’ towards becoming a ‘fairer’ society. The report commends the ‘progress’ we have made in tolerating diversity and endorsing equality, but warns: ‘Outcomes for many people are not shifting as far or as fast as they should.’ It outlines an ‘agenda for fairness’ with 15 ‘aims’ all requiring ‘corrective action’ covering life expectancy, education, employment, crime and politics.

The report rests on two core fallacies.

The first is the assumption that differences between groups prove their members enjoy unequal conditions and opportunities. The report cites differences in outcomes for women, ethnic minorities, gays and other ‘protected groups’ as evidence of their victimisation and deprivation. But group outcomes can vary for all sorts of reasons, and lack of social opportunity is only one possible cause. For example, taking several of the report’s aims:

  • Girls develop better writing skills than boys partly because of differences between male and female brains. Commission boss Trevor Phillips blames the growth of coursework assessment and the decline of male teacher role models in primary schools, but girls have been out-performing boys for at least 50 years.
  • More Pakistani babies die in infancy than White babies, not because of poor social conditions (Bangladeshis have similar living standards to Pakistanis yet their infant mortality rate is lower than for Whites), but because they suffer disproportionately from congenital defects which are probably due to high rates of cousin inter-marriage.
  • Many Pakistani and Bangladeshi women stay out of the workforce, not because they are excluded by racist or misogynist employers , but because their culture emphases a traditional role for them within their families.
  • Women tend on average to earn less than men, not because their pay rates are lower, but because many women choose to take career breaks when their children are young, and opting for part-time employment when they return to work, their earnings progression is disrupted.

Unequal Outcomes Are Always Unfair

The second core assumption is that unequal outcomes are always unfair. The report equates ‘fairness’ with ‘equal outcomes,’ yet it is obvious that unequal outcomes can often be fair, and that forcing equal outcomes onto people could be very unfair. For example (again focusing on the report’s ‘agenda for fairness’ aims):

  • It is not ‘unfair’ that some ethnic groups (e.g. Indian and Chinese people) gravitate to the professional and managerial classes in greater numbers than others (including Whites). It is testimony to the openness and fairness of British society that recently-settled immigrants can out-perform the host population.
  • It is not ‘unfair’ that women cluster in professions like medicine or veterinary science, while men are drawn to careers in engineering and building. In a free and fair society, men and women choose for themselves the subjects that interest them, and the occupations where they can best exploit their talents. The EHRC wants to push men and women down other career paths to fit in with its egalitarian blueprint of what our society should look like, but this would be unfair.
  • It is not self-evidently ‘unfair’ that Black people are over-represented in prison, nor that they are stopped and searched by the police more often than other groups. To gauge whether these things are fair or not, we need to know how many crimes different ethnic groups are committing, but the report is silent on this.
  • It is not necessarily ‘unfair’ if children from lower class backgrounds perform less well on GCSEs than middle class children. What matters is their ability level, and we know that average IQ levels vary between children from different social classes.

In his Foreword, Trevor Phillips writes: ‘All too many of us remain trapped by the accident of our births, our destinies far too likely to be determined by our sex or race.’ This is familiar rhetoric, but it’s not true. Our destinies are not ‘determined’ by our sex or race, and very few of us are ‘trapped’ by the circumstances into which we are born.

The test of fairness does not lie in outcomes, but in processes, and this report does almost nothing to demonstrate that the ‘web of prejudice and inertia’ that Phillips says holds people back even exists, still less that it has a significant causal impact on our lives.

Does The EHRC Deserve To Have Survived The Quango Cull?

David Green, Director of Civitas, commented that the EHRC was: “functioning more like an aggressive pressure group than a government agency pursuing the common good. Its determination to treat every group disparity as the result of discrimination and its enthusiasm for using ‘corrective measures’ to alter the facts on the ground is likely to multiply injustices rather than to rectify them. Any good it may do could easily be accomplished in other ways. The Commission has survived the Coalition’s recent cull of quangos but Professor Saunders forceful rejoinder calls into question its fitness for its task.”

For more information contact:

Nick Cowen at Civitas on: 020 7799 6677
David Green on 020 7799 6677

Notes for Editors

i. Civitas is an independent think tank. Its research programme receives no state funding and it has no links to any political party.

ii. Peter Saunders is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Sussex. For further information about the author see:

iii. The full rejoinder can be found here.


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