THE BLOG

Marking the 50th Anniversary of an Act That Changed Britain

10/12/2015 15:03 GMT | Updated 10/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Britain has always represented the leading edge of civil rights. This year saw the celebration of the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta, a simple document that laid down - for the first time - fundamental truths of living in a free society. This week marked another milestone, less well-known, but no less important - the 50th Anniversary of an Act that helped to change Britain - the Race Relations Act 1965.

It is a mark of the success of that Act, and the legislation that followed it, that it is hard for many of us to imagine the inequalities that thousands of men and woman faced in coming to this county in the 1950s and 60s. Many of those coming to Britain had fought for the Allied forces during the Second World War, and would play a crucial role in helping the nation to rebuild in those critical post-War years. They helped to power Britain's manufacturing, service and textile industries and contributed to the variety and richness of British culture that we all enjoy today.

Although they were respected as former servicemen and women, inequalities and racial discrimination persisted. It was a difficult existence, and they suffered indignities, both large and small, but they demonstrated the great British quality of resolve, and they persevered. In time, society began to change, and bend, as it always does, towards hope and justice. The Race Relations Act was a landmark piece of legislation, and represented the first set of laws in this country to address racial discrimination.

For the first time, it became a civil offence to refuse to serve a person, or to serve them after an 'unreasonable delay', or to overcharge them, on the grounds of 'colour', race, or ethnic or national origin. Alongside this it created The Race Relations Board which aimed to change the attitudes of those that had shown prejudice.

It wasn't perfect but it was a breakthrough, and subsequent legislation extended the same principles into housing and employment. It is the responsibility of Government to choose progress - not only to create more jobs, great schools and to build more and better homes, but also to challenge behaviours that are unacceptable, to ensure safe and inclusive communities, and increase opportunity for all.

The Prime Minister has been very clear that increasing social mobility and opportunity will be a top priority for this parliament. I believe that we have the chance to implement changes which could be as far-reaching as the legacy of the Race Relations Act.

The best way to improve people's lives is through the security of a good job. And already there are now half a million more people from ethnic minorities in work compared to 2010.

That's an increase of around 20% in 5 years, and it's led to the highest ever employment rate for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups - at 61.4%.

My Department has played its role through projects like Enterprising Libraries which gives free access to information, face-to-face coaching and training all of which has helped black and minority ethnic entrepreneurs create more than 440 businesses over the past 2 years.

This is real progress. But we want to go even further.

This Government has already announced a landmark agreement with employers that means millions of jobs will now be recruited through name-blind applications. But that won't stop us working hard to encourage more and more private sector employers to follow suit.

Tangible interventions like this will continue the impressive job growth rate for those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds - by boosting those in work by a further 20% by 2020.

To support our aspirations, we will look to ensure every student has the chance to reach their potential. Our reforms to the school system have already achieved vast improvements in education in this country and already there are 2.4million students enrolled in higher education in the UK.

But we want to do more. We want many more students from diverse backgrounds to be afforded the chance to get on and succeed in life by attending one of our great academic institutions. The first step towards this is to check discrimination at the door: from 2017, UCAS will help to prevent possible bias by implementing name-blind applications.

In the last 50 years, Britain has come a long way. The 1965 Race Relations Act was the start of a journey to create a Britain of equal opportunity, where there are no barriers to building a better life. It is a journey that is far from over, but together we can look forward to the next fifty years, and ensuring, no matter the challenges, that our One Nation is a strong and inclusive society for all

Baroness Williams of Trafford is a Conservative peer and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government