Equality Strategy – An aspiration, or just vague and voluntary?

In “Equality Strategy – Building a fairer Britain” published this month the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May, declares that “Equality is at the heart of the Coalition Government”.  The strategy marks a turning point in the equality regime reflecting that the word ‘equality’ has been misused and misunderstood and has come to mean political correctness, social engineering, form filling and box ticking. The new strategy moves away from legislation, and increased regulation, which is “not a panacea” and has “produced diminishing returns”.

The message is that legislation is only part of the approach, and that a “voluntary approach”, specifically on gender pay reporting (with an emphasis on companies with 150 or more employees in the private and voluntary sector) will need to be developed; which the strategy notes that they expect and want to work.  Annual reviews will be carried out to consider the number of companies releasing information, and its quality, under the voluntary approach to assess its success and to review whether alternatives are required; including using a mandatory approach through section 78 of the Equality Act 2010. In the interim section 78 will not be commenced, amended or repealed.

The strategy focuses on two principles of equality: equal treatment and equal opportunity.

The Government intends to lead by example by:

  • Promoting transparency and good practice in the public sector. The new specific duties made to support the public sector Equality Duty will require large public bodies to be transparent about the make-up of their employees.
  • Improving careers advice for girls, women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and others who can be disadvantaged by occupational segregation, to help ensure that they are aware of the options open to them;
  • Setting a new “aspiration” that 50 per cent of all new appointments to public boards will be women by the end of the current Parliament;
  • Publishing research exploring the barriers that employers face in establishing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friendly workplaces;
  • Extending the right to request flexible working to all employees – promoting flexible working as sensible business practice rather than special treatment.

I expect that this strategy is only part 1 of a swathe of fundamental changes to the equality regime, and employment practices, that we can anticipate from the Coalition Government:

  • The strategy refers to a future consultation which will set out the Government’s approach to how they will take “strong action” where there is evidence of discrimination against women on pay.
  • Lord Davies is currently undertaking a review into the lack of female representation on corporate and business boards and a report is expected early next year;
  • The Government is to look at how the new Universal Credit can support non-traditional work patterns such as ‘mini jobs’ as the first step back into work.
  • Phasing out the Default Retirement Age, and a full public consultation on exceptions to the ban on age discrimination.

The voluntary schemes may create something of a headache for solicitors and HR professionals. There are some ambiguities – such as the comment that the Government will work with regulators and business trade organisations to “shine a light on those who are promoting equality well and those who are not doing well”. Does this mean that those who do well are to be rewarded, or those who do not follow the, supposedly, voluntary scheme will be punished?

There is an ambiguous commitment from April 2011, to allow employers, on a permissive basis, to apply “voluntary positive action” in recruitment and promotion processes when faced with two or more candidates of equal merit, to address under-representation in the workforce.  The strategy document is however keen to point out that voluntary positive action does not mean ‘quotas’, and that “positive discrimination is not acceptable and is unlawful”. The immediate concerns for solicitors are that many clients may make decisions to address perceived imbalances in the work place without taking legal advice about possible discrimination claims. Clear Government guidance will be required.

Please follow this link to read the Equality Strategy – http://www.equalities.gov.uk/pdf/GEO%20Equality%20Strategy%20tagged%20version.pdf


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Filed under Government proposals, Legislative Changes

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