Equality for whom? 2010 – 2011


This project explored the tension between universal human rights, in particular equality and non-discrimination, and the restrictions regularly imposed on migrants’ access to public services and to family reunion, taking the UK as its case study.

The Equality Act 2010 was heralded by government as providing a legislative framework ‘to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all’. The project highlighted the contrasting reality of restrictions attached to the conditions of stay of eight categories of migrant on access to healthcare, education, social housing and family life, revealing a complex pattern of entitlements and restrictions, before exploring the rationales given by governments for those restrictions where any rationale had been provided. A core theme that emerges is that the context for each decision on the allocation or denial of a right is conflicting policy objectives.

Principal Investigator

Sarah Spencer


Jason Pobjoy (University of Cambridge)


Economic and Social Research Council (COMPAS core funding)








The project complements the more traditional focus in the literature on inequality among those who are entitled to equality (on grounds of gender or disability, for instance) by exploring the more problematic category of those who by law are denied the full enjoyment of social, political and civil rights: migrants. It considers the circumstances in which it is legitimate for the border ‘to follow the migrant inside’ and when the equality principle should prevail. In exploring the rationales given by governments for restricting rights, it draws on the literature on trade-offs in migration policy making and on the functions served by the stratification of migrants’ rights.


The project involved the mapping of the restrictions on entitlements across a range of services in the UK, including health, education and social housing for certain categories of migrants. It also involved scrutiny of parliamentary debates, policy literature and relevant court cases to establish the rationales provided for those restrictions.


The rights of migrants are routinely restricted by UK governments. They cite economic, social and immigration control as reasons for restricting rights without, in the most part, demonstrating that the restrictions are necessary and proportional. International and regional human rights law pertaining to non-discrimination and equality provide a structured framework to consider the extent to which any differential treatment between citizens and migrants, or between different categories of migrants, can be justified.


This project informed an initiative by the Equality and Diversity Forum (EDF), the network of national equality and human rights organisations in Britain, to bring migrants within the mainstream equality agenda: http://www.edf.org.uk/blog/?p=11615. Sarah Spencer chaired the conference organised within that initiative in 2011 and the project Working Paper is cited among the few materials addressing this topic that informed EDF’s work.