Research Reports

Boris ‘Unchained’: The Threat to Hard-won Equality and Workers’ Rights (2019)

R. Harwood, 21st October 2019. PIRU.

Below is a summary (see full report here: Boris Unchained).

The Threat in Brief

  • Equality and workers’ rights in the UK have been hard won over many generations – and enacted under governments of different political colours [see appendix 1 of attached report] – but are now under serious and imminent threat.
  • Past comments of current ministers indicate that the present government could move quickly to begin cutting what ministers have described as unnecessary “red tape” (i.e. workers’ and equality rights) if and when the UK leaves the European Union and the transition period ends [see appendix 4 of attached report for a selection of quotes from ministers] .
  • Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement (UK government, 2019a, see bibliography in report), appears to undermine Theresa May’s commitment – in her Agreement of November 2018 [appendix 3 of attached report] – not to weaken workers’ rights post-Brexit. For example –
    • Johnson’s Agreement has dropped Article 4 in Theresa May’s Agreement which provided that – “With the aim of ensuring the proper functioning of the single customs territory, the Union and the United Kingdom shall ensure” “non regression of labour and social standards” [emphasis added; see appendix 3(2)(a) of attached report for the full paragraph]. Instead, there is a weak statement of preference (using the term “should” not “shall”) in Johnson’s non-legally binding Political Declaration [see note 0.1 in the attached report].
    • In addition, as the option of creating a single customs territory has now been discarded [see note 0.2(a) in attached report], the putative goal at which non-regression could have been directed (i.e. the proper functioning of that territory) would seem to have been dropped.
    • The idea that a level playing field could be obtained through a Free Trade Deal, and that this would protect workers’ rights, is illusory [see note 0.2(b)]; and, in addition, the possibility of leaving on WTO terms at the end of the transition period appears to be a very real one.
  • There are also strong indications that the expected post-Brexit economic downturn would be used as a pretext to cut workers’ rights.
    • For example, Priti Patel (the present Home Secretary), referring to a post-Brexit UK said, – “Just think of how much more success our economy could have if we had the power to reduce the burden of red tape and replace pointless EU rules” (Cited in Clark, 2016).
  • It is noted that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government made at least 22 significant cuts to employment and equality rights [see appendix 1, para 2 in attached report]; and would have cut more rights if EU law had not put these out of reach.
    • These rights will no longer be out of reach in a post Brexit future; and Boris Johnson’s government seems far more committed to a low rights (“deregulated”) economy than the Coalition appeared to be.
  • There are dozens of workers and equality rights – currently protected under EU law – which are at possible risk of being repealed or weakened post-Brexit [see appendix 2, para. 1 in the attached report for a list].
  • In contrast to the claims that ministers have made about the level and impact of workers’ rights –
    • UK workers have fewer employment protections than the majority of their EU counter-parts [see attached report, para 2(a)].
    • Reasonable levels of employment protection appear to be more conducive to productivity, competitiveness, and economic growth, than low levels of protection [see attached report, para 2(b)].
  • UK equality and employment laws have made a major contribution to improving the quality of life in the UK [see attached report, paras 2(c)-(d)].

The Campaign in Brief

Declaration of employment and equality rights (with “rising floor” of rights and a constitutional lock)

  • As part of the campaign launched today, local, national, and international campaigns, charities and other groups are being invited to give their support to the following statement:
    • There should be no reduction in the current levels of UK employment and equality rights and protections.
    • Employment and equality rights and protections should be improved now and in the future so that they are and remain at least equal to those enjoyed in other European countries.
    • Enforcement should be strengthened – including through improving access to legal representation – so that individuals are able to enforce their rights regardless of their income.
    • A “rising floor” of equality and workers’ rights and protections (which remains at least equal to those in place in other European countries) should be considered a fundamental right; and should be subject to a constitutional lock.
      • While details would need to be debated and decided, this lock might, for example, entail that reducing rights below this floor requires a two thirds majority in the Commons.
    • We hope that as many organisations and groups as possible will sign up to this declaration. Please share and promote the link to the declaration and/or this news release as widely as possible. This is the link:

 Study and survey on the value of employment and equality rights

  • The campaign will also involve a major study including a public survey, investigating –
    • The impact of equality and employment rights on individuals and businesses in the UK;
    • The possible consequences of leaving the EU; and
    • How current rights and protections might be usefully strengthened.
  • In the survey, individuals are invited to contribute their experiences (of good and/or bad employment practice) and any proposals they might have for change.
    • This is the survey link –
    • Please click on the link if you think that you or someone you know might like to take part in the survey; and please share and promote the link to the survey and/or this media release.
  • If you have any questions about the campaign or study, please email or phone 01792 247 2303.
  • For information on the researcher conducting the study, please click on this link for his ResearchGate page.

As long as the Public Interest Research Unit is appropriately credited, this news release and/or the attached report, and any part of these, may be reproduced without further permission.


A spokesperson for the campaign stated  –

  • The Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition government cut 22 important equality and workers’ rights; and would have cut more rights if EU law had not put these out of reach. These rights would no longer be out of reach in a post-Brexit future; and Boris Johnson’s government seems far more committed to a low rights (“deregulated”) economy than the Coalition appeared to be”.
  • “To our knowledge, there has never been a UK cabinet as personally committed to cutting workers’ rights as this one”.
  • “There is a very real danger that if and when the UK leaves the EU there could be a bonfire of workers’ and equality rights the likes of which this country has never before seen”.
  • “Individuals depend upon hard-won employment and equality rights to be able to support their families and enjoy their lives to the full. These rights should not be sacrificed for short-term political advantage.”
  • We hope that this campaign will help make clear to this and future governments that there is a consensus of decency in the UK; and that it is not acceptable to go back to a time when individuals could be excluded from jobs or even from renting a room because of the colour of their skin or any other currently protected characteristic”.

Dreaming and the onset of chronic illness’ (2017)

 This paper draws on an analysis of 61 dreams – logged during the onset of a chronic autoimmune condition – to explore and develop Gewargis’s recently explicated theory that dreams serve to safeguard the living organism during sleep. The study concluded inter alia that dreams communicate a range of potential problems with the sleeping body, and not just, as Gewargis seems to suggest, inadequate blood flow to the brain or air to the lungs. The study also generated six categories of problem with differing propensities to wake the dreamer from sleep and allow ameliorative action to be taken. Of particular note, new problems (not present on going to sleep) were more likely to be reflected in dreams and wake the dreamer than pre-existing or reoccurring problems; with the paper suggesting a possible evolutionary explanation for this. The paper also concludes that dreams might provide a monitoring-alerting mechanism in relation to the external environment, and proposes a three fold categorisation of external stimuli. For example, familiar, non-threatening, low intensity external stimuli (such as normal rain) are assumed to not in general be reflected in dreams. Based upon thematic dream analysis, the paper goes onto propose five principle types of narrative scenario that serve to wake the dreamer from sleep in the event of internal or external perturbations. These include, for example, unachievable goals, such as the dreamer having dreamt that he was unable to find his shoes among hundreds of others. The paper also suggests that a form of consciousness between lucid dreaming and non-lucid dreaming could be entailed in bringing someone out of deep sleep; and suggests that nightmares are maladapted to a monitoring-alerting function. However, it is accepted that there are major limitations to a non-experimental naturalistic study of a psychophysiological phenomenon such as dreaming; and, therefore, the paper does no more than suggest that it has generated a number of credible hypotheses which could be further developed and tested in future research.
Click here to access the full report,

‘What has limited the impact of UK disability equality law on social justice?’ (2016)

The literature indicates that disabled workers in the UK experience more social injustice than UK workers as a whole, including in relation to employment rates and wage levels. Drawing on the author’s 2015 qualitative study of 265 disabled workers, this paper considers how successful the Equality Act 2010 Reasonable Adjustments Duty has been in tackling this social injustice. It finds that in the context of the “flexible” labour force (consisting of insecure jobs), and the “reformed” welfare state, the Reasonable Adjustments Duty is ill-equipped to achieve its original purpose of reducing the substantial disadvantage that disabled workers face. As regards the “flexible” labour force, there appeared, for example, to be a strong reluctance to make reasonable adjustments for workers on zero hours contracts; while, as regards the impact of welfare reform, fear of being dismissed and facing benefit sanctions discouraged zero hours workers from pushing for adjustments which had been refused. The paper goes on to suggest a possible wording for a strengthened Reasonable Adjustments Duty. It concludes, however, that, without changes to unfair dismissal, and other labour laws, to address the wider iniquities of the flexible labour market, a strengthened duty will not be able to prevent a long term increase in social injustice for disabled workers
Click here for free access to the full article.

‘Can international human rights law help restore access to justice for disabled workers?’

The research literature indicates that legislative changes in recent years, including the introduction of tribunal fees, have made it harder for workers in general to enforce their rights under UK employment laws. Drawing on the author’s qualitative study, conducted in 2015 and with information from 265 participants, this paper finds that these legislative changes could be having disproportionate adverse impacts on disabled workers. Of particular note, fees had deterred substantial numbers from submitting discrimination claims; and it appeared that this reluctance to take legal action had in turn emboldened some employers to commit what might have been found to constitute unlawful acts if taken to tribunal. The paper goes onto consider whether these adverse impacts on disabled workers could render fees unlawful under UK and European equality and human rights law and/or could entail violations of rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The paper concludes that the intent behind UK laws might (in relation to the lawfulness of fees) have been frustrated in the domestic courts and that the impact of any future successes in the domestic courts, or under international law, might be dependent upon public opinion and political expediency. The paper also briefly compares developments in Britain with developments in neighbouring and other comparable jurisdictions.
Click here for free access to full article.

‘The impact of UK coalition government policies on disabled workers’ (2015)

PIRU’s study indicates that in the last four years there has been a deterioration in the workplace experiences and long-term job prospects of disabled workers. The study collected information from 137 disabled workers and 141 organisations; and was produced for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). The study covers the private, public and voluntary sectors. Principal findings include:
• Employer attitudes towards disabled workers have deteriorated in the last four years.
• Zero hours contracts are causing particular problems for disabled workers, including as result of the high levels of ill-treatment associated with these contracts.
• Unlawful discrimination, including harassment and unlawful dismissal, appears to have been increasing.
• There has been a reduction in organisational support for disabled workers and an increased emphasis on discipline.
• The study identified 24 major cuts to equality and employment law protections since 2010. These cuts were starting to have adverse impacts on disabled workers.
With the introduction of tribunal fees, disabled workers were finding it hard or impossible to enforce the rights which remain.
Click here to see the press release and report.

‘The dying of the light’: the impact of the spending cuts, and cuts to employment law protections, on disability adjustments in British local authorities

Adjustments to working arrangements and the working environment have enabled organisations to recruit and retain valuable staff and helped disabled individuals to work and progress in their careers. The qualitative study reported in this paper indicates that generally good adjustments-related practice across 33 British local authorities was beginning to deteriorate under the impact of government spending cuts; and was at further risk from the dismantling of legal protections. The findings have implications for local authorities, but also for national policy-makers and those wishing to influence them.
Click here for journal website and here for free pre-publication copy.

‘Race Back from Equality – has the CRE been breaching race equality law and has race equality law been working?’ (2007)

In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the ‘racial’ equality duties were introduced to combat institutional discrimination on the part of ‘public authorities’.

This research attempted to better determine whether these laws have been working; and whether the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) – the statutory body charged with their oversight and enforcement – has itself complied with them. It also, however, took a preliminary look at how, in more general terms, the CRE has directed its efforts over the last five years and with what results.

Click here to download a pdf of Race Back From Equality.

‘Teeth and their use-enforcement action by the three equality commissions’ (2006)

The report looks at the use that the three equality Commissions (Commission for Racial Equality, Disability Rights Commission, and Equal Opportunities Commission) made of their direct enforcement powers between 1 January 1999 and 1 June 2006; considers the impacts that the Equality Act 2006 could have on enforcement of the equality enactments; and proposes changes designed to improve the effectiveness of the future Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR).

Click here to see the press release or download a pdf of the full report.

‘The End of the Beginning – a critical analysis of the first decade of the Disability Discrimination Act employment provisions’ (2005)

For this report, PIRU analysed employment tribunal and court cases, and documents from public authorities; interviewed lawyers, trade unions, employers and employees; and reviewed the existing literature.

The report identifies and assesses some of the factors which appear to have limited the Act’s success; considers the likely impact of the 2005 amendments; and makes proposals for further reducing employment discrimination.

Click here to see the press release or download a pdf of the executive summary of the report.

‘Trick and Treat – psychiatric treatment in old age in rural Wales’ (2004)

This preliminary report, based upon a limited number of in-depth interviews with patients, relatives and medical staff, and analysis (with informed consent) of medical records and hospital notes, indicates that some doctors were using powerful anti-psychotics inappropriately with some of their elderly patients. The problems it identifies include the drugs having been administered without agreement or valid consent; without good clinical reason; and despite there having been strong contra-indications, such as, for instance, the patient suffering from severe respiratory disease.

The recommendations include, for example, “a greater focus on prevention …. addressing the social and health factors associated with mental illness in old age. For instance, our research suggests that, in some nursing homes, it would be useful to facilitate greater social support among the patients themselves.”

Click here to see the press release.

PIR’s approach to research

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