Lynne welcomes new Equalities Bill

by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2008

The Government’s new Equalities Bill hit the headlines today – primarily for its legalisation of ‘positive discrimination’ where employers are able to employ two equally able candidates. Lib Dem Equalities spokeswoman Lynne Featherstone has put forward her views on her blog.

… the media have made great hay with the bit which will allow an employer who at interview has several equally qualified applicants – give the job to the one they feel fills a gap in the make up of their workforce. So – for example – if there was under-representation of male teachers in a primary school – and a woman and man both were equally qualified to get the job – the employer could decide to give the job to the man to improve the under-represented groups representation – without being sued. That’s the point. Previously it was against the law.

This is the bit that (in garbled and misleading form) grabbed the media attention, but the media have pretty much ignored the really good bit – that at the eleventh hour the Government included tackling age discrimination both in extending the equality duty on the public sector but also applying it to the provision of goods and services. Hurrah!

You can read the full posting here.

And for those of you who want Lynne’s views in more Parliamentary language, as transcribed by Hansard, here you go:

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I very much welcome today’s statement and thank the Minister for allowing me early sight of it. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome a new equality Bill that will bring together all the various strands of equality legislation and further the equality agenda, which sure needs some furthering.

We particularly welcome the eleventh hour inclusion of a grey charter, with the overdue outlawing of age discrimination in the provision of goods and services and the extension of the public equality duty. Can the Minister confirm whether that will cover young people?

I would also be grateful to know the exact date, or as near as we can get, when older patients will be legally entitled to the same treatment in our hospitals as the rest of us.

Allowing employers to discriminate positively when candidates are equal is a good thing and has the potential to effect change in the workplace, but mischief is being made on the airwaves. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify that all under-represented groups are covered and that it is for an employer to improve the situation where the current legislation means that they could be sued.

The move to make public sector suppliers more accountable in their equality polices is certainly a step in the right direction, but it raises some concerns. It is one thing to tick boxes on procurement questionnaires, but if there is no realistic chance of any claims being verified, those measures will indeed be a tick-box exercise. What estimates have the Government made of the number of people employed by their suppliers, notwithstanding simply the £160 billion that goes to private sector employers?

What extra resources are being allocated by the Government to their procurement departments, so that they can monitor and verify the claims made by their suppliers? Given that so much public sector work is now out-sourced to private sector companies, will the public equality duty be extended to cover them in full?

The proposals are a step in the right direction, but it is disappointing that the Government have stopped one step short of compulsory pay audits. I would like to know from the Minister the criteria for when the Government would enact compulsory audits, should the softly-softly approach fail. What will it take? How will we know when the moment has come?

Some of the problems with the lack of equality are to do not solely with legislation, but with the queues at the employment tribunals. What extra resource will the Government commit to clear the backlog? On the Bill as a whole, will any exemptions or exceptions to the equality principles in it be explicit, detailed and decided by the House?

Finally, we have jumped from a Green Paper to a Bill without any formal Government response to the hundreds of organisations that participated in the original consultation. Are the Government ever going to publish a response? What confidence can stakeholders have that they will have their say on the Bill?

In conclusion, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches are happy to work constructively on the equality Bill. I will take the Minister up on her offer of discussions before the Bill is published, as we have quite a list of things that we would like included.