“Now Labour plans to bar white men from jobs” – just one of the recent screaming tabloid headlines about the Equality Bill. What a fantastic nine-word summary of what is wrong with so much of our tabloid journalism: whipping up fear and division based on a fairy tale. I’m not sure what is worse – believing that the person who wrote the headline was so ignorant of the story they thought it was true – or so cynical they were happy to write it knowing it wasn’t.
Because the truth is there is no provision like that in the Equality Bill. Nowhere. All the Bill proposes is that if two different people are equally qualified for a job (and that is a very big if!), it should be ok to choose between them on gender or race grounds.
And why may you want to do that? Well, to take one example – there’s a real shortage of male teachers in primary schools. We all bang on about the need for more male role models for children at this stage. So why shouldn’t the law allow give the school the option if it wants (because yes – that’s all the Bill would do – it wouldn’t force this upon any organisation) to decide that faced with two equally qualified people, it wants to introduce a bit more balance amongst its teachers and employ a man? And if the school wanted just to ban white men regardless (or indeed black men – though notice how that didn’t make it into the headline) – then that would be illegal. End of story.
This sorry tale is though a good reminder as to how we can’t take the case for equality for granted – particular when there are Conservative MPs like Mark Pritchard jumping on the bandwagon happily exaggerating away and mirroring these fairytales too.
It is also a distraction in some ways from the big issue missing at the heart of the Bill – effective action to tackle the continuing discrimination in pay. So, the private sector – in which around 80% of the population work – will escape any form of mandatory measures to ensure that there is no discrimination in their workplaces – thus probably ensuring that the gender pay gap and the employment barriers that exist in race, disability and so on continue barely troubled by the Single Equality Bill.
Given that there are something like 120,000 cases waiting to be heard at equal pay tribunals this is not some trivial niche issue. That is approaching 200 cases per Parliamentary constituency. It should be a huge scandal, grabbing every MPs’ attention – but instead, it is overlooked and sidelined by our political system.
So I will aim to help push those better intentioned MPs in all parties to add in more effective measures to the Bill as it wends its way through Parliament. Lord Lester (our Lord Lester) who basically wrote the book on the equalities agenda is quite clear that mandatory pay audits are absolutely vital to deliver any sort of significant change.
What is to be welcomed in particular in the Bill, and which seems to have been agreed at the eleventh hour, is the inclusion of our older citizens into the public sector equality duty and following on from that – although no timetable was given – the end of discrimination against them in goods and services.
Helped the Aged – and others – have done some great work to illuminate just what goes on at the moment. Take two examples. First, the Disability Living Allowance. People aged 65+ who become disabled are not eligible to receive this allowance – they qualify instead for Attendance Allowance, which takes longer to qualify for and pays less. Second – car insurance, where it is seen as acceptable to charge people more for being old, regardless of their health or driving record. Charging more because someone is genuinely a higher risk – that would be fine– but simply assuming “old = risky driver” in the absence of evidence to back that up – that is discrimination as plain and simple as if someone was to say, “they’re black – so let’s charge them more”.
The Bill will also bring in a much-needed consolidation of the huge number of different laws, rules and regulations – good news again. And of course the passage through Parliament will provide plenty of opportunities to try to make the legislation better!
This article first appeared in last week’s Liberal Democrat News. For subscription details, click here.