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Building understanding of fairness, equality and good relations

Food stall
Published: April 2010


This research report aims to explore public understanding of the concepts ‘equality’, ‘fairness’ and ‘good relations’ and the key factors that influence public attitudes to these issues. It also considers implications of people’s understanding and attitudes for bringing about change.


Generally, those we spoke to felt that Britain:

  • is not equal
  • but, is more equal than most other countries
  • allows privileged access and opportunities to some groups and individuals
  • and is being helped towards equality through legislation.

It became clear from the research that:

  • there was still very little shared understanding of the terms fairness, equality and good relations
  • further attempts to change public attitudes needed to take account of this, as well as the two different concepts of ‘equality’: equality of opportunity and equality of outcome
  • there was a widespread belief that although fairness, equality and good relations may be desirable, they are not practicably attainable
  • there was particular concern about ‘undeserving’ groups of people who ‘got more out of the system than they put in’
  • some participants felt that fairness and equality were being ‘taken too far’ by positive discrimination
  • and any attempt to shape public attitudes and/or gain support for future policy changewill need to focus on specific, easy to grasp concepts.

‘Fairness’ was perceived as personal; either treating everyone in the same manner; or treating people in a way that takes account of their individual and specific needs.

‘Equality’ was perceived as more of a large-scale, legislative issue. Equality of opportunity was generally considered desirable, but equality of outcome was not considered desirable or achievable.

‘Good relations’ might apply to community, employment or international contexts but was not usually a term participants felt happy with, except in terms of their immediate local community. 


The research employed mixed methods:

  • a review of the existing evidence on public attitudes
  • a series of 23 focus groups throughout England, Scotland and Wales
  • two stakeholder seminars

Read the full report

Read the Scottish report