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In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May highlighted the “burning injustice” represented by the pervading influence of discrimination and inequality in Britain today. She highlighted the enormous impact that race, gender, and class still have on a person’s opportunities and life outcomes, and pledged to do all she could to rectify this situation.

A year into her time in office, the Prime Minister has had limited success in fulfilling this pledge, and it appears that renewed impetus and fresh thinking by conservatives is required to hold May to her egalitarian vision. It is therefore an opportune time for Bright Blue to be launching a new report, ‘Britain Breaking Barriers’, that introduces around 70 policies designed to strengthen human rights and tackle discrimination, both in the UK and overseas.

These policies are the fruit of a year-long commission involving leading Conservative parliamentarians and thinkers, including former Cabinet Ministers Maria Miller, Caroline Spelman, and Dominic Grieve, writer Matthew D’Ancona, and human rights activist Benedict Rogers. The result of this commission is a collection of timely policies that attempt to break down barriers to individual freedom and flourishing.
The policies that Bright Blue are recommending can be grouped into two main categories; those related to tackling discrimination and those related to defending human rights. The full report contains an extensive description of the background and justification for each policy. However, this blog attempts to summarise some of the most notable policy recommendations.

Improving educational opportunity

Several of our education policies share the aim of improving educational opportunities for groups that are currently underrepresented in further and higher education, such as black, minority and ethnic (BME) people, the disabled and those with learning difficulties. To correct this inequality, Bright Blue recommends:

  • Maintenance loans should be offered to all apprentices. Disabled people and women are significantly underrepresented in apprenticeships. There is evidence to suggest that this is because the £3.50 minimum wage is unable to cover costs for these groups, due to childcare costs for women, and higher living costs for the disabled. Extending maintenance loans to apprenticeships would particularly benefit these groups, and would provide financial security to all apprentices as they study. This policy is supplement by others, for example a policy to financially reward colleges that offer supported internships, and another to offer employer bonuses to for every disabled person successfully completing an internship.
  • Higher Education Institutes should introduce ‘Anti-Discrimination Agreements. Harassment is an increasing problem on university campuses across the UK, with 50% of students believing that sexual harassment is rife, and one in six black students having experienced racism. Bright Blue recommend that all Higher Education Institutes charging above £6,000 in tuition fees should be required to compile Anti-Discrimination Agreements setting out how they intend to safeguard students from harassment and discrimination on campus.

The gender pay gap and working parents

The UK gender pay gap has stubbornly remained at roughly 10% for several years. Too many mothers are still being penalised for making the decision to have a child, and it is still the case that parental leave is used significantly more by women than men. To help reduce this inequality, Bright Blue recommends:

  • Government should increase the base rate of Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP). There is evidence to suggest that some low-income women are returning to work sooner than they would like after having children. However it is also the case that women on higher incomes receive more government support for maternity leave in the first six weeks, as SMP is paid at 90% of the employee’s average weekly earnings. This situation entrenches inequality, Bright Blue therefore recommends that the 90% cap on average earnings for higher-earning mothers, and using the money saved through this measure to help low-income mothers by increasing the basic rate of SMP. Bright Blue also recommends that Health Visitors should be obliged to tell all new parents about the availability of Shared Parental Leave and Pay, to help increase the number of men taking time off work to help with childcare.
  • All parents should be offered income-contingent loans to fund childcare up to the age of 5. The lack of affordable childcare, especially in London, is an important reason that many women leave the labour market after having a child. The government has already introduced 15 hours of free childcare per week for 2 to 4 year olds, however for many working mothers this is not sufficient. Bright Blue therefore recommends that government-backed, income-contingent loans should be made available to fund formal childcare. This will benefit the children who will receive early education, the parents who will be able to work, and the British economy as more mothers will be able to re-enter the economy when they wish to.

Defending British Values and human rights

The government should be pro-active in defending our current human rights law, and political expediency should not take priority over human rights protections, whether for recent refugees or longstanding citizens. Towards this purpose, Bright Blue recommends:

  • The Conservative Party should commit the UK to remaining a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights after Brexit. The ECHR is based in part on English common law and was championed by Churchill. It still serves as the best vehicle for protecting individual liberty from abusive and intrusive power, and has strengthened human rights both in the UK and in more oppressive countries throughout Europe. Furthermore, pledging to remain a signatory to the ECHR would send a signal of good will and co-operation towards other European powers during the crucial Brexit negotiations.
  • The government should introduce a new major immigration target of 28 days for migrant detention, after which they should be placed in community-based alternatives. Indefinite detention has significant mental health costs on detainees as well as being costly for the taxpayers. The UK is the only country in the EU without a limit on the time asylum applicants can be detained for. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that community-based alternatives are more humane, cheaper and also result in higher rates of voluntary return for those whose cases are ultimately refused.

Championing human rights overseas

Government policy should be concerned not only with strengthening human rights at home, but also with using its international influence to prevent the violation of human rights around the world. As the fifth largest economy on the world, Britain has significant, and underused, scope to use its economic heft to defend human rights through trade and aid. In service of this aim, Bright Blue recommends:

  • The FCO should establish an independent and high profile Human Rights Advisory Committee. This committee would have four key functions, it would: set human rights targets for the FCO, hold them to account for these targets, advise on which countries should be on the FCO list of ‘Human Rights Priority Countries’, and advise on the spending of the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy. More generally it would help provide the FCO with a strong human rights framework for all decision made by the FCO. Along with the Department for International Trade, and the Department for International Development, the committee could also ensure that all trade and aid deals, where possible, include obligations to improve human rights in the partner countries.
  • The policies outlined above, and the many others featured in our report, represent a fully developed liberal conservative response to the “burning injustice” that the Prime Minister identified. Implementing them as part of the government’s social reform agenda would make good on Theresa May’s resolution to “help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far your talents will take you”.

Freddie Lloyd is a research assistant at Bright Blue