My latest local newspaper column was about the Equality Bill:
Fanfare please! At last – the much trailed, much vaunted, long-time in gestation Equality Bill is here and going through Parliament.
So what’s in it? Well – there’s not space to cover the great tome in just one column – but here’s a taster.
Much of the Bill is a bringing together of all the bits and pieces of equality legislation over recent decades – and that’s one of those small sounding administrative changes (putting all the rules together in one place) that will actually have a big impact (clearer legislation means easier to understand, fewer mistakes and – sorry lawyers! – even a bit less legal work in future). That’s one of the reasons why broadly speaking the Liberal Democrats are backing this Bill, although as it goes through Parliament we (in particular – myself, leading on the Bill in the Commons – and Lord Lester, who basically wrote the book on equalities, leading on the Bill in the Lords) will be working to improve it.
Now getting to the contentious stuff – and making sure than men and women are paid equally for equivalent jobs. I’m a great fan of pay audits – making companies and the public sector check their pay to ensure that they aren’t discriminating in what they pay men and women. Of course, when this issue comes up, there’s always a chorus of voices saying, “Oh, we’re fine in our firm/industry/sector”. Well, if that’s the case – a clean bill of health will be a good mark in favour of a firm that will make it easier to attract good quality staff. And if it isn’t the case – well, that’s the whole point – to bring that to light.
But the Government has wimped out of requiring firms to carry out pay audits. It says something about the struggle there is still to be had for men and women to be treated equally that there are 1,001 things the Government is happy to order firms to do – but at the basic level of not discriminating in pay, it has blinked. Instead, the Bill proposals a weak voluntary scheme for several years, with maybe, perhaps, possibly further action after that.
Better news though – one way firms get away with unfair or unequal pay practices is by banning staff from telling anyone else how much they are paid. Rather a restriction on freedom of speech – and the Bill will ban this sort of censorship.
Next, religion – or more accurately, the Government’s intention to extend the current existing public duties to race, gender, disability and sexual orientation to religion and belief. This would mean that public authorities would be obliged in carrying out their functions to advance equality of opportunity and good relations between different groups. Obviously we all would subscribe to promoting good relations etc – but a public duty? Religious views on things like abortion, alcohol, homosexuality and sex education in schools are varied – to put it mildly. It would be absurd to require public authorities to accommodate all the different religious views in these policies which affect us all. This is a road to hell (if you will excuse the religious connotations) paved with good – but ludicrous – intentions.
And one more major issue to pick out – the proposed new duty for bodies receiving public funding, requiring them to consider the equality gap between rich and poor. In some ways this is no different from saying that when our taxes are spent by public bodies they should bear in mind whether or not they are damaging our environment in how they go about spending them. Thinking of the wider implications of spending makes sense and if you can use the spending to help achieve more than one goal – then that’s even better news as it’s more value for money in the cash-strapped times. But the way this duty is laid out in the Bill is, I fear, simplistic and unfair, it’s wording is broad enough to attract controversy, worry and legal arguments, but too weak to have much of an impact. The worst of all worlds. This is a case where the role of Parliament in amending Bills can be crucial.
That’s only a brief sample of the points covered by the Bill – and even for those, it’s a pretty brief summary of what the Bill does and my views on it. You can keep up with them in more detail as the Bill goes through Parliament via my list of blog postings on the topic.