Here’s my speech to a Lib Dem conference fringe meeting organised by the Fawcett Society and Unison:
Will it deliver for woman? No! Not on your nelly! Women are the losers from the lost opportunity of the Equality Bill.
This was literally a once in a lifetime chance to make a step change in women’s lives – but instead of taking the opportunity – perhaps the last opportunity a whole generation of Labour politicians will have to wield Parliamentary power – they’ve run scared of anyone who says “boo”, condemning women to hideously unequal pay for another generation.
A small, very, very, small bit of good crept through on women’s pay – stopping employers from banning staff from talking about their pay – ending finally those bans that let discriminatory pay, wasteful pay be hidden away under clauses of legal secrecy.
But that only frees up the hardiest and doughtiest of campaigners to fight that little bit more for more equal pay.
There were three key amendments put forward by the Liberal Democrats, one jointly with two Labour back benchers on equal pay for the Bill – each on of which would have ensured that the move towards equal pay would come quicker and more widely and for everyone.
Firstly we argued for mandatory pay audits – exposing the overall patterns of pay (though not individual salaries) to public scrutiny.
It’s ironic that opponents of equal pay measures often argue that in the market place there can’t be discrimination – because those firms discriminating would be worse off.
Yet when here was the opportunity to strengthen those market pressures – to give the market more information just as free market theorists tell us the markets need – where were those people? They made themselves very, very scarce from the debates!
The Government’s proposal only suggests that the information be published voluntarily until at least the year 2013. As the Equal Pay Act was passed 39 years ago and women are still – on the latest Office of National Statistics figures – paid 17% less then men – we are sick of waiting – always jam .
So instead of this weak measure, I and my colleagues argued that for reasonable sized firms and up – 100 employees would be a good cut-off – there should be mandatory audits with public results so women – or indeed men – could bring claims and avoid companies as they see fit.
The Equality Commission has most recently been making some bullish noises about the size of the pay gap in the City – warning that if it doesn’t get its act together the Commission will have to use its statutory powers.
And yet – the Commission flunked the test when the Bill was going through Parliament – for where was its lobbying and campaigning for effective equal pay measures in the Bill?
The second key area which we argued for during the Bill’s passage – in addition to mandatory pay audits – was on loosening some of the ridiculously tight restrictions on legal action over equal pay.
For women wanting to prove sexual discrimination in pay they have to be able to give a concrete example of someone else in a comparable job, being paid more. Now –often that exact comparator doesn’t exist. Many people do jobs where there isn’t someone else in a comparable role – and of the opposite gender.
But no – Labour dug its heels in and insisted there must always be a direct comparator that you can use.
And thirdly – there was the issue of allowing ‘representative action’. Currently, if a woman believes she has been discriminated against in terms of pay she can take the claim to an employment tribunal.
But you have to be quite brave and assertive to take a claim forward – and the resources for tribunals etc are so inadequate that there is currently a backlog of women waiting – and waiting – and waiting.
Thousands and thousands of women are held in this backlog – and women have actually died waiting for justice.
The answer to this is simple – allow representative actions, which means one action can cover and so settle many situations – speeding up justice, taking the pressure off each individual and saving the system from breakdown.
With representative action people such as a trade union or indeed the Equality Commission would be able to take action on behalf of a group of people in the same situation. But again the Government resisted this most obvious of moves forward.
Three opportunities – three fails – from the Government – and the price paid in more years of unequal pay.