Race Matters

50 years on: the Race Relations Act and the Runnymede Trust

This is a year of anniversaries. Not just our 50th, but the centenary of (partial) woman’s suffrage and of the end of the first world war, the 70th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush and of the foundation of the NHS, the 60th of the Notting Hill race riots, and the 50th of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech.

Of course, Powell’s speech was itself a reaction to another important anniversary: the Race Relations Amendment Act, passed in 1968. When the first Race Relations Act (1965) was passed in, it was acknowledged even by its drafters as a weak piece of legislation, extending only to ‘places of public resort’.

But whatever its weaknesses, the legislation was groundbreaking and important for three reasons. First, it established anti-discrimination as a key principle, and one that government would legislate on. Second, it sent a message to the wider population that discrimination was wrong, probably a minority view at the time. Finally, and importantly, it also sent a clear signal to black and minority ethnic (BME) people that the state realised that they were experiencing discrimination, and that this was wrong, and something the state would seek to remedy.

The 1968 Act was in many ways an extension of these principles to the areas of life that most affected BME people: housing and employment. It wasn’t until the 1968 Act that the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs were made illegal; it’s important not to forget how weak common law was in protecting individuals from direct and explicit discrimination before it was passed.

One of the authors of early race relations legislation, Geoffrey Bindman QC, has, however, suggested that few people received appropriate protection even under the 1968 Act. This highlights three issues that continue to resonate over the decades, and that sadly were apparent in the contemporary Windrush generation scandal. First, that race relations legislation would always be counterbalanced by restrictive immigration policy. In 1968 the Labour Government also implemented an Immigration Act, one that set in train the ‘partiality’ conditions of citizenship, fully deployed in the 1971 Act, that meant that people born in the Caribbean (and Asia and Africa) would have reduced access to British citizenship, which would also affect their UK-born children and grandchildren. The Lords debate on the 1968 Immigration Act has very dated language, but many peers were clear and critical about the act’s intent and effects:

‘Broadly speaking, these people are, let us face it, coloured… They are coloured people and ipso facto it appears that this is a question of colour discrimination… that is what it looks like. It is going to be hard to convince anybody – the public at large, and particularly the coloured section of the public – that this same action would have been taken if all these people had been white’. (House of Lords debate on Immigration Bill, Hansard, 29 February, 1968)

A second lesson that emerged from the 1968 Race Relations Act, and the ‘race relations board’ that was meant to enforce it was the difficulty in proving the direct intent of racism. Bindman notes that all employers rejected accusations of discrimination, even when the outcomes were plain to see. For this reason – because the then-Windrush generation were unable to get appropriate remedies from discrimination, much less justice – the 1976 Race Relations Act introduced the concept of indirect discrimination. This better aligned UK legislation with the UN human rights treaty on racism (which the UK had signed a decade previously), and focused on abuses of human rights and the denial of access to public services in terms of outcomes. 

This leads to the second important development of what might be called a ‘British’ approach to race relations, namely the collection of data. Elsewhere in Europe data collection by ethnicity remains rare and controversial, but in Britain it was recognised that to implement race relations legislation – to determine if people were experiencing racism or discrimination – that we needed robust evidence on the relative outcomes of white British and black British people in a range of areas of public and private life, from housing to criminal justice to employment. The Runnymede Trust was established in 1968 in part to support the collection of this evidence, not just for it’s own sake but, as our founders put it to ‘nail the lie’ of racism.

Commemorating anniversaries brings reflection, not just celebration. As with previous Directors, I’m proud of our track record in gathering evidence, and of the commitment of so many colleagues past and present. But I also realise that evidence alone can’t change things. This was most obvious in the Windrush injustice. Runnymede and many others highlighted how the 2014 immigration provision would incentivise racial discrimination from landlords as well as employers and even public services, but our concerns were ignored. We’ve urged organisations to set a positive and strong anti-racist culture from the top if they want to see equal opportunity policies bring results. However, the Home Office resisted the obvious point that setting out a culture of ‘hostility’, encapsulated in the ‘Go Home’ vans would have wider effects on the 52% of BME people who were themselves migrants.

It’s important to remind ourselves again that evidence doesn’t change minds, or policy, all by itself. It is very concerning that the government’s response to the Windrush injustice suggests it doesn’t understand existing equalities legislation, or the concept of indirect discrimination and that it was introduced because this very generation was unable to secure justice against discrimination in the 1960s and 1970s. When the Prime Minister or Home Secretary suggests it wasn’t the intent to affect people who arrived from the Caribbean, that of course doesn’t rule out the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts being racially discriminatory. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer says it isn’t the intent to hit the poorest black women most with the government’s budget, he’s demonstrating a failure to understand not just indirect discrimination, but the public sector equality duty that emerged after the institutional failures identified in the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report.

Fifty years on from the 1968 Race Relations Act and the founding of the Runnymede Trust, much has changed – and improved – in Britain. But we can’t just celebrate our past, we need to understand it, and learn from it. This includes, of course, the British Empire whose legacy lives on among the victims of the Windrush injustice. We need to understand and learn from the past, even as we focus on actions that will tackle racial discrimination and inequality today.

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