Equalities Bill forces more red tape on businesses

April 28, 2009 5:29 PM

Yesterday saw the release of the Government’s new Equalities Bill. Under the new structures, all businesses and government bodies with more than 250 employees will be forced to reduce ‘workplace’ inequality by stating the average pay for their male and female employees (by 2013). Equalities Minister Harriet Harman stated that the current pay gap is at least 23%, and believes that only Government regulation can fix this. But she is wrong in two important ways.


For one, this pay gap of 23% covers all workers, including the many low paid part time workers who tend to be women with families. The official estimate of the pay gap for full time employees is actually 12.8%, down from 31% in 1970 when the Equal Pay Act was introduced. If this trend continues – and in fact it should accelerate as women graduates now outnumber male ones – the pay gap should have resolved itself by 2037.


Secondly, Government activism is not the answer. The Budget stated that businesses would be at the heart of the economic revival, as the country attempts to draw itself out of recession. But even by Harman’s calculations (which are bound to be conservative) the Equalities Bill is liable to cost the private sector an initial one off sum of £211 million, and between £11-17 million a year after that in additional court and tribunal cases. Creating extra red tape and paper work for small businesses who are already struggling under the burden of incredibly complex employment law, and the worst recession in living memory, seems incredibly ill advised. Particularly as the policy is unlikely to make much difference.


Equality will not happen overnight. It took Pankhurst and the suffragette movement over a sixty years to get equal voting rights, after men had been campaigning for universal male suffrage for 500 years. More to the point, it wasn’t until their contribution in WWII that women were seen as really capable of providing a valuable role in the workplace. Public and social attitudes changed towards them, not employment law. Enforced ‘equality’ from above has as much chance of entrenching current attitudes towards women as it does eroding them.


What Harman fails to take into account is that ‘opportunity’ and ‘equality’ are completely different. Real equality cannot be achieved by leveling down, to the detriment of men; businesses should always employ people based on qualification, not their gender, race or faith. It will take time, but the past makes it clear that it will happen. In the mean time, Harman should concentrate on improving opportunities for child care and education, aiming to ensure that future generations of women are not subjected to opportunity discrimination.

Yesterday saw the release of the Government’s new Equalities Bill. Under the new structures, all businesses and government bodies with more than 250 employees will be forced to reduce ‘workplace’ inequality by stating the average pay for their male and female employees (by 2013). Equalities Minister Harriet Harman stated that the current pay gap is at least 23%, and believes that only Government regulation can fix this. But she is wrong in two important ways.


For one, this pay gap of 23% covers all workers, including the many low paid part time workers who tend to be women with families. The official estimate of the pay gap for full time employees is actually 12.8%, down from 31% in 1970 when the Equal Pay Act was introduced. If this trend continues – and in fact it should accelerate as women graduates now outnumber male ones – the pay gap should have resolved itself by 2037.


Secondly, Government activism is not the answer. The Budget stated that businesses would be at the heart of the economic revival, as the country attempts to draw itself out of recession. But even by Harman’s calculations (which are bound to be conservative) the Equalities Bill is liable to cost the private sector an initial one off sum of £211 million, and between £11-17 million a year after that in additional court and tribunal cases. Creating extra red tape and paper work for small businesses who are already struggling under the burden of incredibly complex employment law, and the worst recession in living memory, seems incredibly ill advised. Particularly as the policy is unlikely to make much difference.


Equality will not happen overnight. It took Pankhurst and the suffragette movement over a sixty years to get equal voting rights, after men had been campaigning for universal male suffrage for 500 years. More to the point, it wasn’t until their contribution in WWII that women were seen as really capable of providing a valuable role in the workplace. Public and social attitudes changed towards them, not employment law. Enforced ‘equality’ from above has as much chance of entrenching current attitudes towards women as it does eroding them.


What Harman fails to take into account is that ‘opportunity’ and ‘equality’ are completely different. Real equality cannot be achieved by leveling down, to the detriment of men; businesses should always employ people based on qualification, not their gender, race or faith. It will take time, but the past makes it clear that it will happen. In the mean time, Harman should concentrate on improving opportunities for child care and education, aiming to ensure that future generations of women are not subjected to opportunity discrimination.

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