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Discrimination: Is “povertyism” to become a new protected characteristic?

24 November 2022

Discrimination is “the practice of treating one person or group of people less fairly or less well than other people or groups”. The Equality Act 2010 (“EA 2010”) protects people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society, but only where that discrimination relates to one of the defined protected characteristics. This article identifies the current protected characteristics and discusses the recent call by a UN expert for “povertyism” to be included in anti-discrimination law.

What are the current “protected characteristics”?

Section 4 EA 2010 lists the following protected characteristics:

  • age;
  • disability;
  • gender reassignment;
  • marriage and civil partnership;
  • pregnancy and maternity;
  • race;
  • religion or belief;
  • sex; and
  • sexual orientation.

The EA 2010 also sets out various types of discrimination (e.g. direct and indirect discrimination) and other unlawful conduct (such as harassment, victimisation and instructing, causing, inducing and helping discrimination) that apply to most (and in some cases all) of the protected characteristics.

What has been said about “povertyism”?

In an address to the UN General Assembly on 28 October 2022, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter, has called for “povertyism” – the negative stereotyping against the poor – to be included in anti-discrimination law. He believes that “it is high time the law intervened to ban discrimination on grounds of socio-economic status, as many [states] have already done with race, sex, age or disability”.

Studies show an example of “povertyism” in the employment context where employers judge applicants’ CVs more harshly based on their address being in a deprived area or having previous employment in social enterprises.

De Schutter’s report calls on governments to urgently review their anti-discrimination laws and to consider affirmative action in a bid to eradicate poverty. He believes that strengthening the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of socio-economic disadvantage is paramount to achieving poverty eradication. He urges that it is now more important than ever to protect those living in poverty, given the global rise in energy and food prices which will throw millions more people into poverty.

In his report, however, De Schutter recognises that in order for states to successfully implement an anti-discrimination framework on the grounds of poverty they first need to:

  1. provide legal aid and make the courts more accessible (potentially through the creation of specialised courts) to people in poverty so that the courts can effectively protect against this type of discrimination;
  2. ensure that any extension of the protection on anti-discrimination law in this way is not a substitute for policies that provide low-income individuals with the kind of support that would ensure real equality of opportunities; and
  3. address any imbalances in political power and specifically ensuring a more balanced representation in public office when it comes to discrimination on the grounds of poverty in areas related to housing, education or employment.     

Final thoughts

The UK has one of the world’s greatest wealth inequalities and studies have proven that “povertyism” is more stigmatised in countries with greater inequalities. With the cost of living crisis underway and poverty (particularly child poverty) on the rise, there is increasing pressure on the UK government to take action when it comes to those in poverty. Whether the UK government pays attention to these calls from the UN to include “povertyism” in its anti-discrimination framework is yet to be seen. Given the increasing awareness and recognition of discrimination against people on the grounds of poverty, however, it seems likely that at some point in the future “povertyism” will become a protected characteristic covered by discrimination law in the EA 2010.

This article is provided by Burlingtons for general information only. It is not intended to be and cannot be relied upon as legal advice or otherwise. If you would like to discuss any of the matters covered in this article, please contact Helena Antoniou or write to us using the contact form below.

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