What's coming in the Equalities Bill?

So – the long, long, long awaited Equalities Bill has arrived. As usual, media first – Parliament second. Published last Friday but embargoed until Monday – presumably so other parties can’t get hands on it to comment. I thought Harriet Harman was better than that – but given her office has refused to brief me or meet with me – should have known.

The man who wrote the book on equalities – Lord Lester – will be leading on the Bill in the Lords for the Liberal Democrats – but in the Commons, that job falls to me.

I notice that the Government has made a huge fanfare over its stance on pay audits. From the media it sounds as if mandatory pay audits will be introduced for large firms, but I suspect from the details it will be the same as before – voluntary for five years and then possibly mandatory after that. We will see when the details are finally unveiled to one and all!

Mandatory pay audits would be a really effective way of adding pressure to end discrimination in pay between men and women – as you can see from the example of Cambridge University. Their audit highlighted some big differences in pay – and so gave me the grounds to refer them to the Equalities Commission whilst also causing the university to hared down to Parliament to justify what they are doing – all in the knowledge that with this in the public domain, things can’t just be brushed under the carpet or not talked about.

The other ‘announcement’ in the Bill is a public duty to reduce the equality gap between rich and poor. Very laudable – the equality gap is widening and if you look at stats around the world you see that those countries that have less of a gap do much better on every scale – including happiness! The Tories will term this class war. I would say that the ambition is right but the methodology is wrong. Or rather – the equality gap should be narrowed – but by bringing the bottom up without lessening the universal services and their standards that all are entitled.

Ten most popular blog postings (1st quarter, 2009)

Here’s what you’ve been reading the most on my blog over the last three months:

10. Lap dancing in Crouch End – one of the big local issues coming up for decision

9. Heading up the party’s Technology Board – see number 1.

8. Sharon Shoesmith – see number 2.

7. Reading the Baby P Serious Case Review – see number 2.

6. Why the number of female MPs matters – see why I think so.

5. What should you do with your emails? – a fun way to demonstrate to Jacqui Smith what’s wrong with the government’s latest plans to keep tabs on what we’re all doing.

4. Not so equal pay at Cambridge University – not Cambridge University at its best.

3. Politicians and Twitter: why The Times is wrong – not The Times at its best.

2. Sharon Shoesmith in The Guardian – I’ve found this blog really useful during the Baby P tragedy, as it’s given me the chance to raise issues and expound on my views at the length the issue demands, but which the media rarely gives MPs.

1. Are you a techno wizard? – no surprise that news about the Liberal Democrats online (and other) work should attract the attention of an online audience!

Cambridge Univesity comes calling

Cambridge came calling. After my blog about unequal pay at Cambridge University – the Director of External Affairs and Indi Seehra, Director of Human Resources, came to Portcullis House. Having referred Cambridge University to the Equality and Human Rights Commission after seeing its voluntary pay audit (full credit for producing one) they were keen to tell me what steps they are taking to improve their gender pay gap. They said that they knew by publishing the pay audit they would expose themselves to criticism.

And they were right on that – and that is why these pay audits should be mandatory not voluntary, because many will balk at exposing their organisations in this way. The Government still is sticking to voluntary audits in the coming Equalities Bill (if it ever arrives) – so will keep on pushing for this to change.

In Cambridge’s case – by publishing the figures, I was able to pick it up, question their gender pay gap and the lack of women particularly at higher grades – and they came and explained what they were doing. I listened to their explanation and also the reviews and the efforts they are now going to put into narrowing that pay gap.

The real proof of the pudding though, will be next year, and the year after – when we can see whether their efforts result in a closing of the gaps. So – Cambridge – so far, so good – let’s see where we are next year.

Cambridge University pay continued…

I see the news of the Cambridge University unequal pay issue also reached the student press.

My efforts on this issue have reached Cambridge’s ears and the Director of External Affairs is seeking a meeting with me. So full marks to him for a quick approach. We will meet in a week or so. I have no doubt there are rafts of ‘reasons’ as to why there is a gender pay gap (and Cambridge is not alone in this regard). The even more depressing aspect though, is Cambridge’s response to the figures – which is basically that women are on the lower paid rungs of the greasy pole – as if that was OK!

Anyway – point is – I am not an investigator – which is why I have asked the Equalities Commission to investigate the situation. That, after all, is their job!

Over on the Spectator, Martin Bright, in his blog calls me redoubtable (love it) for unearthing this report – but ‘unearthing’ is not really how it happened. The report, as I understand it, was completed last year but only saw light of day on 18th February when the Council at Cambridge discussed its findings. Whether it was sat on until then or simply that is the way things are done at Cambridge – I have no idea. What I will say for Cambridge however, at least they have produced a document voluntarily which does look at the pay – which is more than can be said for many.

One of the underlying issues equally damaging to sorting out pay issues is the habit of gagging staff. Gagging clauses have themselves been severely criticised within the university – see the debate on the web here, especially in the speech of Dr Cowley (near the end). This is the most relevant bit:

To finish I would like to make a suggestion. While the white paper makes a great deal of academic freedom, it’s not clear that the HR Division itself is really in favour of freedom of speech. As part of my concerns over the white paper I have tried to talk to members of staff, here and elsewhere, who have been dismissed, or ‘persuaded’ to take severance or early retirement. I have found it difficult to find out what happened because of gagging clauses. In a University that believes in freedom of speech they are an affront. Even the HEFCE does not seem too keen on them, at least in the case of Senior Staff earning more than £70,000.

Institutions must not agree to confidentiality clauses within any severance agreements except where it is necessary to protect commercially sensitive information. Commercially sensitive information does not include information on the details of the severance package itself, nor generalised clauses whereby individuals undertake not to make statements that might damage the reputation of an institution. However, there may be exceptional cases not covered by commercial considerations, where it is in the public interest to include a confidentiality clause. In these circumstances the institution must consult with me as HEFCE chief executive, in my capacity as Accounting Officer, before agreeing to such a clause.

The University should have similar restrictions on confidentiality clauses, but for all staff.

Anyway – as I said – will see what the Director of External Affairs says when we meet. And then I should hear back from the Equalities Commission as to their take on this. They are already investigating the financial sector – so don’t see why they shouldn’t put our Ivy League universities on their list too.

However, when the Equalities Bill hits the Commons (predicted April-ish) the nation will find that the Government is still clinging to a voluntary code for pay audits. That will so not work. Pay audits must be mandatory. Whilst Cambridge has at least produced this document voluntarily, on the whole we have seen how well voluntary codes usually work – for example in the banking sector – not! Whenever I tackle Harriet Harman on this issue – she says basically if companies don’t improve in five years then the Government will look again at making pay audits mandatory. Always jam tomorrow for us girls – 30 years since the Equal Pay Act and we are still waiting – and it is an inequality that is totally unacceptable and compounds with many other inequalities that women still face.

I fear that much in the Bill is going to be watered down anyway. There were lots of ominous bits and pieces in the papers last week saying that any policy elements that cost will have to go! Denied of course by She Who Would be Prime Minister!

Not so equal pay at Cambridge University

Cambridge – bastion of male dominance – still! So- I’ve referred the buggers to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission for investigation.

It’s because of the appallingly wide gap between what the university pays men and women. The university’s own Equal Pay Report shows that men are paid on average nearly a third more than women – £37,157 compared to £28,247.

There are two reasons for the gap – if you compare people on each pay grade, then for two-thirds of the grades, women on that grade get paid less than men – and also the higher the grade, the higher the proportion of men. At the most senior level, there are seven men for every woman – but even for those women who have reached the very top, they are still being paid less than men in the same position.

So there are some real questions for the university to answer – but there seems to be too much complacency around, particularly in the half-baked attempted explanation that men get paid more because they tend to be pay on a higher pay grade. Well, duh! But why is that the case? And why, even when people are on the same grade, men usually get paid more?

There are some professions where change in pay and equal opportunities has been slow and a long time coming. I have a smidgen of sympathy for those where you have to have many years of service in order to get to the very top – and there is at least an argument that those years are needed to gain the necessary experience. The Law Lords might be a case in point.

But academia – despite its rather fusty image at times – is not one of those. Look at what happens to the youngest and brightest new academic stars – they are often snapped up and become professors at a young age. Decades of service are not needed.

The gap at grade 12 (the top pay grade) is over 5%, which is the threshold where, under the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidelines action should be taken. The university is trying to wriggle out of this by saying the gap is under 5% – if you exclude “market pay supplements and other pensionable and non pensionable payments”. In other words – the gap is smaller, if you ignore bits of it. Not got enough. Pay is pay. So – over to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission!

Local school success

Well – no surprise what the gossip at the Palace of Varieties is today. Members of the other parties and the media keep asking – did you know? I think the answer is that no-one knew – except apparently the News of the World. And I guess, after Mark had withdrawn from the leadership they had to get their story out before their hook for it with the leadership contest wasn’t headline news any more.

I am kicking myself because the odds are shortening on Chris – and when I first urged him to run he was on at 300-1 and fourth in line for the throne – and I haven’t had time to put a bet on. Now the odds have shortened faster than any other political odds in history and he is in second place.

I go over to Alexandra Park School later morning for a photo op with two of the sixth formers who have gained Oxbridge places – one at each Oxford and Cambridge. The head, Ros Hudson, rang me last week to tell me the good news – so this is to celebrate to have two kids in the first year of the new sixth form attain such places. We have a cup of tea and a chat about the interviews they have both been through to get their places – terrifying. The newspapers turn up to take the photo – and hopefully this ‘good news’ story will encourage others to reach for the stars too.

When I get to the Commons, I discover it is Questions to the Minister of the Defence Department – and decide I want to put a question to him. In order to get called (if you are not one of the MPs selected in the ballot for Questions on the Order Paper) you have to stand up each time anyone finishes speaking during this session. I sit quiet until Question 5 which is on Iraq – as the question I want to ask is on this subject.

This time I am lucky and I get called to ask my question – which is: ‘Has the Minster had any discussions about gradually replacing British troops in Iraq with troops from Muslim Countries?’ John Reid, I think, looked pretty pleased to get an opportunity to say who he had been speaking to and push this up the agenda as he had had a number of meetings on the issue. So that was good all round – as I do think the sooner we are replaced by troops better trusted than ourselves the better for all.

I have a short meeting with the man who has been the subject of the police trawl for Operation Minstead and who was asked to give a ‘voluntary’ DNA sample and refused. The deadline for Met to respond to the CRE call for extra information is 30 January – as is mine for a response from Met Commissioner Ian Blair to my enquiries on this matter.

In fact DNA is in the news for all sorts of reasons at the moment. I have had a bee in my bonnet about it for some time and my various Parliamentary Questions (written) have elicited some startling statistics including the disproportionate amount of DNA taken from black men and the fact that the DNA of around 134,000 innocent people who were never charged or cautioned is now on the record books.

This weekend the coverage is about the 24,000 of those who are juveniles. This is shaping up for a real battle at some point – as there is a national database being built by stealth. If the Government want this – then they should have the balls to put forward legislation and have the public debate. My simple question to those who defend what is happening is this: ‘if it’s so great and without any problems, why not be upfront and have an explicit debate and agreement (or not) to set-up such a database?’

I think it would be dreadful – but at least there would be a logic to it if the whole country was held. Randomly keeping the DNA records of people the police erroneously arrest is ludicrous. Doing it by default also means we don’t get the same safeguards in place as we would if there was a proper debate and decision.

Personally, and this is not necessarily the party view we will come to when we discuss it further, I think it will lead to all sorts of mischief. For instance – once DNA is the main arbiter of guilt or innocence – how easy it will be to set someone up! I can foresee absolute nightmare scenarios – and what is a phenomenal detection tool and confirmation of guilt – will be misused ultimately. And a million other issues – but the temptations will probably be too much for old authoritarians to resist. Let alone if we have a malign government who might misuse such a system.

This issue comes up at the emergency Home Affairs Team Meeting which Alistair Carmichael has called as he has stepped up to take Mark’s place until the leadership contest is decided and the new leader reshuffles us. It would be fair to say that there are a variety of views on the issue – and so we need a paper that brings us up to date on facts around DNA before we can make our judgements. Alistair seems to have it all under control.

We sit talking into the late night between and after votes – about the leadership contest. We may all have differing views on who should be crowned – but the spirit is good between our different camps – thank goodness!