Research conducted for the new Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) indicates that 46 percent of Brits believe they have faced some form of discrimination.
The new commission, which incorporates the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, is being launched today.
Its Chair, Trevor Phillips, said: “We live in an age of difference where most of us believe that people must be judged on their abilities, not their age, what they look like, their disability or their families and private lives.”
The results of a survey timed to coincide with the first day of the commission reveal a persistent level of discrimination in the UK.
Fifty percent of those questioned thought sexual orientation was a main reason for discrimination. It came second in the list after ethnic background, which 66 percent cited as a common cause.
Other reasons included age, religion and disability.
Equality secretary Harriet Harman said the launch of the new Commission would be a major step forward in challenging prejudice.
“Fighting discrimination, prejudice and hatred in all its forms and giving everyone the chance to fulfil their potential in a fair and peaceful society will be at the heart of this government,” she said.
“We are proud of our track record on equalities and the creation of the new commission is another important step forward.”
The Gfk-NOP poll revealed that forty one percent of those who admitted to suffering discrimination said it occurred at work.
Only a quarter of those who had experienced the discrimination took any further action, with the majority believing that nothing could be gained by doing so.
“This is the clearest reason for the existence of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and equality law,” Mr Phillips said.
“Unless people feel that they can deal openly with unfairness we risk a simmering cauldron of resentment to poison our workplaces and schools. Our work isn’t about supporting vexatious litigation by a few persistent grumblers; it is about building a fairer, more confident and more united Britain.”
The new commission will provide practical guidance to employers, individuals and the voluntary and public sectors while also monitoring the success of equality legislation across society.
Mr Phillips continued: “We will continue to support meritorious and significant individual cases. But we can do even better by working to change underlying attitudes and biased behaviour.”
But the commission already came in for criticism today, with the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents its staff, saying it would be a “toothless tiger” unless it receives adequate resources.
The union fears that the ECHR, like its predecessors, will suffer year-on-year budget cuts, hampering its ability to fulfil its obligations.
Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: “Discrimination is still rife in 21st Century Britain.
“If the body is to avoid being a toothless tiger then the government needs to put its money where its mouth is and back its stated commitment to equality with the resources to root out and challenge discrimination.”
But Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall and one of the 14 commissioners on the EHRC, sounded a more optimistic note.
“This is hugely important,” he told pinknews.co.uk, “because people will have a public body required to defend them for the very first time.
“The challenge is to make sure that it works as well as some of the charities supporting equality have been able to do at their best.”