So – Harriet Harman has launched her Equalities Bill into the political process and it’s really only one issue in it that has caught the media and public eye so far – the proposal to allow a limited degree of positive action in some circumstances when choosing who to employ.
If you believe some of the sensationalist coverage, the world is about to end for white men with discrimination against them about to be legalised left, right and centre. Conservative MP Philip Davies said, for example,
How on earth can [Harriet Harman] justify in an equalities Bill a provision that allows people to be selected solely on the basis of their skin colour or their gender? That is completely and utterly outrageous.
Well, what’s really completely and utterly outrageous is the way Philip Davies has got what is proposed completely wrong. Nowhere do the proposals say that employment purely on the basis of skin colour or gender should be allowed. Nowhere. For all that the proposals actually say are that:
The Bill will extend positive action so that employers can take under-representation into account when selecting between two equally qualified candidates.
That “two equally qualified candidates” is crucial and makes a nonsense of the distorted fear tactics from (some) Conservatives claiming that suddenly white men will get dumped for worse women / ethnic minorities.
When you’ve got two equally qualified people for a job, you have to choose somehow between them. We shouldn’t be naïve about what happens at the moment – such as how who know who, who went to school with who, and so on often is using to pull favours in such situations. All these proposals would do is to make it legal to use a rather more appropriate criteria.
Take a primary school with an overwhelming number of female teachers. If you have two equally qualified applicants for a vacancy, why not let the school – if it wishes (and note, these proposals in the bill are only permissive – they don’t force people to use them) it could decide to prefer a man, so that the young children get a better mix of male and female role models.
I think it’s right that the school should be able to decide whether or not to do this, making the decision based on its own circumstances and needs – and I’m damn sure it’s a better way of doing things than letting personal links and favouritism make the judgement in such situations but saying the question of mix of male and female role models is banned from consideration.