Baby Peter, the Equality and Human Rights Commission … and West Ham

As I blogged earlier this week, I was interviewed by Yoosk – answering a series of questions posted by visitors to their website. Here’s a selection of the answers I gave:

On the death of Baby Peter

(Also on YouTube here.)

On the Equality and Human Rights Commission

(Also on YouTube here.)

On similarities between the Liberal Democrats and West Ham

(Also on YouTube here.)

We're sick of jam tomorrow!

Just watched Trevor Phillips on Andrew Marr saying that tomorrow the Equality Commission are going to publish (finally) their report into unequal pay in the financial services sector – and ‘it’s shocking’! No kidding? We know that – so presumably it’s even worse than we thought and women are not only getting unequal pay and unequal bonuses (setting aside the issue of size of bonus momentarily) but the differential will be staggering. So much so – that the Equality Commission says that if the City doesn’t come to heel – they will have to use their statutory powers. Oooooooh! Warm wards indeed.

And yet – the biggest flunk this century in terms of ending pay inequality comes from the Equality Commission itself who rant on about the importance of the Equality Bill currently going through Parliament yet failed to do anything really significant on women’s pay in the Bill. In the Bill was / is the opportunity to make all companies publish their pay scales and value male and female jobs.

The Equality Commission, clearly in cahoots with the Labour Government and running scared of the CBI, refuses to endorse mandatory pay audits saying that they will leave publication and valuation as a voluntary code for four years and then if the private sector continue on the naughty step – only then will they make it mandatory. (Forty years ago when the Equal Pay Act came in – the then Government gave business five years to get its house in order – and we are still waiting!) And whilst the Equality Commission chief equivocates his remarks by saying how hard the city is trying – it doesn’t mask what is obviously going to be a damning indictment of the lack of success it has had in so doing.

Surely what we will see tomorrow is a clarion call for all sides of the House of Commons at the Report Stage of the Bill to introduce mandatory pay audits. It was a LibDem amendment at committee stage and will be again at Report Stage. So I expect the Equality Commission to put its clout where its mouth is. It cannot be right that the Commission can investigate the financial sector – which means looking at pay scales and work value – find it to be hideously biased in its pay practise – but then draw back from supporting legislation which will make all companies publish and therefore put power into individuals to see whether they are being discriminated against to take a case forward.

I asked the Commission to look into another sector a while ago – and was told that they couldn’t because they were busy conducting the investigations into the financial sector. Equality shouldn’t have to wait until the Commission has time and resource to investigate. They cannot do everything – so give us the information to see and do for ourselves!

Troubles at the Equality and Human Rights Commission

Thought I’d pitch in with my thoughts on the troubled Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I remember being on the London board of the original Commission for Racial Equality when this new all singing, all dancing Equality Commission was first mooted. All the race bodies and leaders of different groups in the community were against it – including Trevor Phillips. The leaders of the other commissions (women and disability) were all against it – as they all appeared to resent to some degree (and not surprisingly) giving up their leadership positions and becoming commissioners under someone else – particularly when that someone else turned out to be Mr Phillips. There was also genuine concern that the clear fight for a particular cause would be muddied and subsumed by being part of a greater whole. And there was fear and competitiveness as to whether the Chair would give more attention to race (as that was his background) and would that leave women, disability, sexual orientation and so on playing catch up.

Nevertheless – the new Equality and Human Rights Commission came into being, chaired by Trevor Phillips, who hired as the new CEO Nicola Brewer, and is now about 18 months old. Ms Brewer has recently left for a plum job as South Africa High Commissioner.

There was always going to be trouble at mill. Lots of old scores, egos and enemies all thrust into one body would inevitably lead to jealousy, noses out of joint and undoubtedly the real feeling of being ignored when it came to some decisions.

In terms of the tide of resigning commissioners – there are some who are and have been phenomenal campaigners, leaders and experts in their particular field – and there are some that may simply be crumbs fighting.The severe reduction in number of commissioners which is coming, and the fact that they all have to reapply for their jobs, may also play a part in their ‘brave’ decision to go at this point.

What I don’t understand is if it has been so dreadful why none of them really rocked the boat prior to the possibility of losing their jobs? It’s one of the reasons I think that if Trevor Phillips survives this debacle new blood might be a very good thing. Well – there will be blood on the carpet – that’s for sure.

However, there is always a difficult balance to strike when people have championed causes and been instrumental in moving forward the agenda on whichever equality is their drum to beat. The problems arise, I think, in twofold ways. Firstly – if you have banged a drum for years and years – it is very difficult to change the way you beat it or the repertoire that you play. Secondly, Trevor Phillips appears to have trodden on many other egos to make announcements, change direction, challenge the status quo – without consultation or agreement. That too is a difficult balance to strike – leadership versus consultation. Phillips has clearly got it wrong in terms of Commissioners’ feelings and also, perhaps, his style of leadership. On the other hand – there are such major challenges for this country in terms of equalities – taking the agenda boldly where no one has gone before may require such leadership and saying the unsayable.

Phillips has been right on some things like changing multiculturalism – or aspects around it. He said we were sleepwalking into segregation – and that did change the multicultural weather. Councils who for so long had funded so many different communities – funding separateness – have started to fund togetherness instead. Critics turned that into Phillips wanting to attack multiculturalism – but it wasn’t – it was acknowledging that what was once good policy had had its day.

My main anger with the EHRC is that it is compliant with the Labour agenda – not independent enough. Women have been the sacrificial lambs that Phillips has happily led to slaughter in the Equalities Bill . But Harriet Harman lost in cabinet to Mandelson on that – ergo women can just wait for equality. Trevor Phillips is a Labour man and won’t really challenge the Government.

The other main complaint is that the EHRC is just dreadful at answering mail – both in terms of getting an answer – and the content when it finally comes. However, I would lay this at the door of the ex-Chief Executive. It was Nicola Brewer’s job as Chief Officer to run the Commission – and she singular failed in terms of efficiency on this score alone.

It’s not just growing pains that have caused the hoo ha at the EHRC. There are real problems that need sorting – and fast. With Brewer gone – and about six commissioners gone – who knows whether Trevor Phillips will survive. Having just signed a new three year contract for his job – and with Government backing – he may do. If he does – he has one hell of a lot of mending to do – and perhaps a little bit of humility might help.

Arlene bites the dust

The BBC may well say that getting rid of Arlene from Strictly Come Dancing is nothing to do with her age – but I don’t believe them. To have one of the world’s most successful and knowledgeable choreographers judging the dancers has been a strength of the program – giving a real basis to those judgements. With an eye over their shoulder to competing with the X-Factor, the Beeb seems to think the magic formula of ‘refreshment’ is the answer – refreshment meaning bringing in a young, pretty female with less qualification for the job.

People will watch Strictly because they love it – and Arlene is part of the reason they love it. They’ll watch it with Alesha too – but it will have lost the very special reason it wasn’t just like other other programs – the very fact that it has flown in the face of age discrimination up until now with an older head judge and a very, very old presenter. Why not replace Len? Or Brucie? Oh – they’re older men – it’s only women who aren’t allowed to get old in pubic. So it’s not just age – it’s age and gender! Shame on you BBC!

Perhaps this should be a case for the Equality and Human Rights Commission? Organisations that spend public money have to be subject to the Equality Duty. The BBC were very keen that the new Equality Bill should not interfere with their rights in terms of program content – and we politicians leading on the Bill believed they meant that the law should have nothing to do with how many women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and so on should appear in their dramas and soaps etc. Clearly that would have been a nonsense. However, in view of this latest display of age and gender discrimination – perhaps we will have to reconsider this exemption.

And as the Equality Bill is not yet through its legislative processes – I will be considering bringing an amendment to the Bill which looks at the BBC’s exemption again. They clearly can’t be trusted.

Last Session of Equality Bill

The 19th and 20th sitting of the Equality Bill. Hurrah – the last chapter – at least of the Bill Committee.

The big issue of the morning session was my amendment – well new clause – which would insert an Equality Guarantee into the Bill. The problem with the Bill is that it is very prescriptive. The protection from discrimination is delivered to strands – otherwise known as ‘protected characteristics’. As have explained before – these are things like race, gender, sex, sexual orientation and so on. What the Bill doesn’t do is guarantee equality and protection from discrimination if you fall outside of the very precise prescriptions within the Bill. Hence the Equality and Human Rights Commission lobbied for the inclusion of an over-arching Equality Guarantee.

Both Labour and Tories just picked it to pieces in terms of the minutiae of relatively small technical matters or drafting – clever dick stuff – but ignoring the key point. And as I said in Committee – the Bill lacks any real vision for equality on the wider scale. It brings together existing legislation in one place and makes some progress in terms of equality but not much. An Equality Guarantee is very similar to the Human Rights Act in that it gives overarching protection against inalienable rights. But no – how dare I suggest that the legislation might not be perfect and there be any situation or unintended consequence that would allow a Law Lord ten years down the track to make a judicial decision that would undo all the good that was intended in this Bill.

But this is exactly what happened to the Disability Discrimination Act. I am referring to what is called the ‘Malcolm’ case. Without going into long explanations – the Disability Discrimination Act came into being to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. In the Malcolm case the Law Lords made a decision that totally undermined and screwed up the entire intention of that Act. It has taken three years to sort out – and thousands of people with disabilities were put at risk by the intention of the Bill not being clear. Hence an overarching Equality Guarantee would put it beyond doubt that we all have a right to equality before the law and equality in our lives and protection from discrimination. However, the Solicitor General was absolutely confident that we needn’t worry and that such a thing was so unlikely to happen that it would be ridiculous to put such a Guarantee into this Bill. And so on. And so on……………………….

Tim Boswell (Tory) tabled a similar thing – although not so broad and over-arching – but something called a ‘purpose clause’ which basically is a statement of the intention behind the Bill so that a judge, if something one day was unclear, could look at this ‘purpose clause’ and understand the intention of the Bill. Vera Baird was more polite to Tim than myself – but equally dismissed it.

In the afternoon and very last session of the Committee there was an amendment about not inquiring of applicants for jobs as to whether they had a disability. Not unlike my anonymous job applications in theory. Disability organisations have lobbied members of the committee because their experience is that employers do discriminate against applicants with a disability – whether or not that disability would detract from their ability to do the job.

Anyway – that was it. The tradition then is that all the leads of the parties thank everyone, clerks, officials, the committee, the other leads etc etc for a wonderful debate and so on. Vera Baird summed up on the key issues that the Government has promised to consider (change) and come back with hopefully their own amendments at Report Stage which will be in the autumn session.

I quote:

Solicitor-General: However, I have agreed to consider five matters: whether to include various fire and rescue bodies in the socio-economic duty, as proposed by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green; the clarification, if necessary, of the asymmetric nature of disability protection in clause 13(3); the issue around the case of Malcolm and whether we need to make the protection in clause 14 clearer; the case for representative actions; and, very recently, whether to limit the use of pre-employment disability questionnaires. That is a little survey of the work that I still have to do before we gather again on Report. I will seriously consider all those proposals.

I reminded the Minster of the DWP work on anonymous job applications too! So – quite a lot of the arguments we have had in Committee have born fruit – but not nearly enough. So there will be lots to bring back at Report Stage. The issues that the Government needs to change their mind on are things like: the gender pay gap; the issue of discrimination in the caste system; harassment in terms of homophobic bullying not being protected in the clashes with religious freedoms; gender reassignment needing to become gender identity as reassignment has been used in previous terms to indicate sex change – and this needs to be much broader; anonymous job applications and lots lots more. Some exciting new issues to come in the autumn too – as Evan and I are bringing forward the issue of Royal Accession to the Throne – where we feel and have both campaigned on – the discrimination both in the bar against Catholic accession and the tradition of females dropping back in succession in favour of younger born males.
Way to go……………………

Equality Bill: equal pay

There were four sessions of the Equality Bill Committee last week, so for this post I’ve picked out the arguments around unequal pay between men and women. So to the normal anonymous commentators who take exception whenever I blog about discrimination about women – I expect to hear from you shortly!

First up – hypothetical comparators. When you bring a case for discrimination in pay, currently the woman has to point to a similar job being done by a man – i.e. there has to be a real comparator to prove discrimination. This is quite different to any other case you can bring on discrimination. If you are black and believe you have been discriminated against – you don’t need a comparator at all – for example.

The reason this continually comes up as an issue – and as a barrier to women being able to bring claims – is that there are many jobs that are almost solely done by women – dinner ladies, lots of carer jobs, seamstresses etc. Traditionally these ‘women’s’ jobs have been paid poorly as women’s work has always borne the stigma of not being as important as men’s work and consequently is paid at a lower rate.

I am not sure why the Government continues to resist the introduction of the ability to use a hypothetical comparator. However, resist the Solicitor General did. My arguments weaved around the fact that there often isn’t ‘evidence’ because men don’t do the comparator work – and so insisting on a traditional comparator locks out whole areas of possible discrimination from action. This argument has been put many, many times by others before. It is used elsewhere quite commonly to resolve the issue around women’s work not having a comparator. And it is clearly outrageous that it is only in discrimination in women’s pay that a real comparator is required. So – shame on the Government on this one!

Another big issue was Clause 73 – gender pay gap information. This is the one you may have heard about – and is the Government’s proposal that companies of over 250 people will have to publish the pay patterns for their male and female employees – so that employees can see for themselves if they are being discriminated against and external bodies like the Equality and Human Rights Commission can judge if there is systemic discrimination.

Problem from my point of view is this clause only suggests that the information be published and leaves it as voluntary until at least the year 2013. As the Equal Pay Act was passed 39 years ago and women are still paid 17% less then men for equal work – we are sick of waiting.

So instead of this weak measure, the Lib Dems think there should be compulsory pay audits – and that if companies (and we think over 100 employees would be a much better number to encompass a reasonable proportion of the population 80% of whom work in the private sector) had to publish this information – women would be able to bring claims as they could see if they were unfairly paid. So could men for that matter.

So our argument is about letting employers off the hook for another four years. And as I pointed out to the Minister – we don’t know what hue the next government will be and if (heaven forefend) it is a Tory government – then hell would freeze over before they introduced the compulsory element.

I used many a persuasive argument. Some of the Labour backbenchers in committee agreed with me. But the Minster was determined to keep it voluntary – referring continually to the CBI, the Equality Commission and the Government agreeing on ‘metrics’ by which progress could be measured. So – I might as well have been whistling Dixie as the Minster was set in stone and clung to somehow this all being alright in the future.

Then 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. Firstly – you have to be quite brave and assertive to take a claim forward. Secondly, 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. There is nothing in the Bill that increases resources – and that would not be the whole answer anyway.

The proposed amendment would allow ‘representative action’. This would mean that if there were other women who were discriminated against in the same way – they could be represented as a group by either the trade unions or indeed the Equality Commission. But again the Government resisted this most obvious of moves forward – backed as they proudly claimed by the CBI.

Well – we were backed by all the women’s’ organisations you can imagine – who are just sick of warm words from the Government but no real action. For we don’t just need laws about equal pay – there also needs to be the ability to bring cases.

The Government, I think, got the message – as the Solicitor General said they were going to consult (again) and whilst she attacked me stridently over the suggestion during the debate – at the end she conceded that they would probably be able to bring something along these lines back in the autumn when the legislation passes to the Lords for its scrutiny there.

So – we fight on – and will bring some of these key issues back at the Report Stage of the Bill in the Commons chamber. The Government is clearly in thrall to the CBI and refuses to take the steps that would deliver equal pay. How can a Labour government fail so monumentally – even if only as their legacy – to deliver this most important of steps towards equal pay for women?

Anonymous job applications – ending discrimination

I have blogged several times about my idea to make use of anonymous job applications – so as to end the subliminal discrimination that creeps in with some applications being discarded because of the names on them.

I floated my idea during the Second Reading of the Equality Bill and it caused quite a hoo ha. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development waded in to support the idea – albeit they didn’t think it should be mandatory. Some Human Resource departments were less happy and thought it a stupid idea. Well – it will be interesting to see what they say in response to the evidence that’s now been gathered.

Because – when I spoke to my amendment on anonymous job applications in the Committee Stage of the Equality Bill, I was absolutely thrilled with the Solicitor General’s response:

The Solicitor-General: That is a valid point and perhaps what we ought to do is experiment, which is what we are seeking to do in that the Department for Work and Pensions [DWP] has carried out a CV research exercise. Two carefully matched applications or CVs with names recognised as having different ethnicities have been submitted in response to the same advertised vacancies to see whether employers make different decisions depending on the names in the CVs. That research will be reported in the summer—I am sorry that I do not have an answer now, having tantalisingly mentioned the subject. The initial indications are that there is significant discrimination, so more work needs to be done to find an appropriate solution.

So – initial findings are of significant discrimination. And whilst it is clearly early days and the DWP is going to do more work – it seems clear to me that – first – those who argued there isn’t a problem which needs fixing in particular need to look very closely at what the DWP has been finding, and second – here is a simple proposal which costs business nothing but could actually deliver enormous benefits in removing discrimination in the job market.

Removing such discrimination is not only important in itself – but by providing people with equal opportunities to earn their living, it opens up all sorts of other knock-on benefits in terms of social cohesion and economic efficiency, which we all benefit from.

So once we see what the rest of the research shows – I’m hopeful that we will have a proposal that is easy, not burdensome and brings major benefits – and that of course the Government will in its wisdom decide to adopt it!

I trust that the EHRC (Equality and Human Rights Commission) will also step up to the plate and advocate anonymous job applications – and I will be writing to them as soon as I get a minute to rub together.

How the Equality and Human Rights Commission is failing women

How many pieces of silver did Peter Mandelson give the Equality and Human Rights Commission to come out in the media this morning basically saying that equality was too expensive during a recession?

Nicola Brewer (Chief Exec of the EHRC) was quoted in The Guardian this morning saying that this was no time to make companies carry out and publish pay audits that would demonstrate the disparity in men and women’s wages.

Mandelson has been sending smoke signals through the trade and right wing press for some weeks now – vilifying any part of the Equalities Bill which might be a cost. But the scandal of women’s pay (compared to men) – even now, 30 years after the Equal Pay Act – is something that this Government said it would address in the Bill.

Ms Harman keeps assuring me in Parliament that they are committed to equality but that pay audits must be voluntary not mandatory. Well – we saw how effective voluntary codes were in banking!

Clearly from these weasly words from the EHRC the Government wants to be able to point at their statement as referred credibility for backing away from any commitment to real equality. The EHRC should be ashamed of themselves. They are meant to fight for equality – not be lackies for Labour’s failed commitments.

Ironically, to mark International Women’s Day, we had a debate in the chamber on ‘Support for Women (Economic Downturn)’ – the gist of which was that women are particularly vulnerable in a recession as they usually have less financial resilience and are already much disadvantaged through things like unequal pay etc. As I said in the debate, “The needs of those who face discrimination do not stop where the needs of British businesses begin.”

But clearly Mandelson, Harman and the EHRC are going to let us eat cake!

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.

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!