Equality Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 11th May 2009.

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Photo of Lynne Featherstone Lynne Featherstone Shadow Minister (Children, Schools and Families), Liberal Democrat Spokeperson (Children, Schools and Families) 5:15 pm, 11th May 2009

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We Liberal Democrats are trying hard to support the measures in the Bill, but it is hard to see the legislation going through its stages without the detail that we need to be sure that we are doing the right thing. These are uncertain political times, and it causes me concern that future Ministers might be anti-equality. Powers left to a Minister in future will be powers for a Minister to undo what has been done today, if they should, by any chance, not share an equal conviction in the equality legislation.

Socio-economic inequality is the deepest and most intractable inequality. That is the one into which we are born, and we have very little chance of changing that. The Liberal Democrats have long argued, in this Chamber and elsewhere, that poverty and inequality are intrinsically linked. In nearly three decades of Thatcherite and new Labour Governments, Britain has steadily become a less equal and less fair society. Under this Labour Government, rates of social mobility have fallen. A person born into a poor family now is more likely to remain poor throughout their adult life than a person born 30 years ago. Educational chances are almost entirely correlated to social class, which means that children's prospects are set before they even reach school.

The equality gap has widened, and as Ms Polly Toynbee wrote last week:

"in Labour's decade, billionaires' wealth quadrupled and three out of five of them paid no income tax."

Even more importantly, in the five years before the crash, average incomes barely changed, and the poor became poorer. Inequality is at its highest level since records began—and that is under a Labour Government. The Government should have introduced measures to tackle stubborn, worsening inequality 10 years ago, and they should not have done so in a last-minute, throwaway clause, even though it has been put at the start of the Bill. It muddies the water; it has been jumbled into a Bill that was intended to unify, clarify and strengthen existing legislation.

The Government should have made legislative proposals to tackle socio-economic inequality in a Bill of its own, given the vital importance of narrowing the equality gap. It is the right aim, but the wrong vehicle and the wrong means. It is just a very weak measure. In some ways, the proposal in the Bill is no different from saying that when our taxes are spent by public bodies, those bodies should bear in mind whether they are damaging our environment in how they spend those taxes. It makes sense to think about the wider implications of how money should be spent. If we can use it to address and tackle more than one issue, and to achieve more than one goal, that is even better news, as it is more value for money in cash-strapped times, but the way in which the duty is laid out in the Bill is, I fear, simplistic and unfair. Its wording is broad enough to attract controversy, worry, and legal argument, but too weak to have much of a real impact or really address the equality gap, which is widening and damaging to all of us. That is the worst of all words.

I cannot express how disappointed I am with the Government's overly patient approach to equal pay for women. I know that their heart is in the right place, but the idea that business is to be given another four years in which to change its ways is a cop-out. It would seem that the Minister for Women and Equality has forgotten that businesses were given five years to get their house in order after the original Equal Pay Act of 1970. Forty years later, we are about to repeat that same error. How much time do businesses need to get their house in order? I am sorry that the Government have backed away from mandatory pay audits. What the Government propose is not a pay audit at all, but simply a statement of average pay by gender, without any context to make it truly meaningful. My goodness, the Government clearly understand the benefits of openness and transparency, because they rightly seek to end the mystery that shrouds pay by prohibiting firms from issuing gagging orders that require a vow of silence from their staff. However, they fall short of requiring a real pay audit that would evaluate the quality and nature of the work being done and then be published.

Recently, off the back of a publication about pay at the university of Cambridge, I noticed an unhealthy preponderance of men at the top of the scales and women at the bottom. I referred the issue to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and blogged about it, and two very concerned gentleman from the university's external relations department rushed down to Parliament to meet me and inform me of all that they were going to do to deal with that glaring challenge—exposed by meaningful figures that they had had to publish. That is the point: what is exposed to public scrutiny will concentrate the mind. The main benefit of such an audit, however, is that it becomes a tool for the individual who has no idea what the pay scales are and who gets what. In seeing what is what, the individual will be able to decide whether she or he is being discriminated against, and they will have the evidence and knowledge to take their case forward.

Conservative Members discussed the knock-on effect on a whole company, but how will an individual take forward a case to be examined by a tribunal in the first place if they do not have the evidence? The Government's hand may be forced if businesses do not change their ways, but the Bill deals only with those private sector firms that have 250 staff or more, representing 0.5 per cent. of the whole sector. As the Leader of the House pointed out, 80 per cent. of people work in the private sector, so the Bill is unlikely to right many of the wrongs ensuring that, economically, women continue to be second-class citizens.

Moreover, the Government's plan seems to require the Equality and Human Rights Commission to spend the summer consulting various bodies, but it is a bit rich for the commission to consider it after legislation has gone through the House, because we will have no idea of the extent of the measure. We are also disappointed that, on legal protection against pay discrimination, the Government have not introduced hypothetical comparators for equal pay claims, because that continues the disparity between the way in which different types of discrimination are dealt with. We will therefore push the Government in Committee to have the courage of their convictions.

Much of the Bill deals with when one is in work, but I am concerned about the discrimination that takes place in respect of applications for work, because, even before the interview stage, there are barriers that eliminate those people from black or ethnic minority communities, women, those with disabilities and older applicants. Applicants must be given an equal chance of employment from the first moment that they apply for a job, whether private or public.

I once had two interns, one whose surname was Patel and one whose surname was Hussein. They were bright, able and talented, but, out of the many jobs that they had applied for before they came to work as interns, they had not qualified for a single interview. Obviously, after interning for a while in my office and being able to put on their CV that they had worked for an MP, which is, after all, the point for them, they both went off to good jobs, I am pleased to say—one in public relations and one at the Ministry of Defence. However, the situation got me thinking—it is not rocket science—that they might not have got past that first, application stage because of their surnames.

Nicola Brewer, the outgoing chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, gave voice not long ago to the fact that employers avoid employing women because they wish to avoid becoming liable for maternity benefits. We will table an amendment to introduce a name-blank application that would apply to all written applications to work. Just as children are given an exam number to put on their exam papers so that there is no recognition, prejudice or unfairness, job applicants should be required to submit, for example, only their national insurance number. No one would know whether they were female, male, black, brown, young or old, and that first, possibly subliminal, discard would be eliminated. Obviously, when one reached the interview stage, the employer would know one's background, but prejudice would be much harder, and personality and character come through at interview in a way that they do not on a piece of paper. I hope that the Government will look favourably on that suggestion. Financially, the cost would be almost nil.