Thought leaders: Academic insights: Austerity may hit equality programme

The coalition is introducing a raft of equality measures, but cuts may hinder implementation, says Susan Corby

At first sight, the coalition government is actively fostering workplace equality and the political climate appears set fair. This is largely because the coalition is implementing the Equality Act 2010, which Labour passed just before it lost office, but did not have time to bring into effect.

So the coalition is implementing the Act’s harmonisation of the different protected grounds of discrimination law (gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, and age); its measures to make discrimination because of association with a protected person unlawful (for example, a mother caring for a disabled child); and the outlawing of discrimination because of perception (for example, perception of a person as being homosexual even if they are not).

The coalition has also implemented the part of the Act that extends the protected ground of gender to include pregnancy and gender reassignment and has extended ethnicity to include caste; is introducing a single equality duty for public sector bodies, incorporating the existing public duties on race, ethnicity and gender, but adding the three other protected grounds; has banned pay secrecy clauses in contracts; and is enabling tribunals that find against employers to make recommendations to change workplace policies or practices.

In addition, the government is introducing the Act’s provisions on positive action. As a result, where there is a tie-break – one person is overall as qualified as another – the person with the protected ground can (not must) be treated more favourably, for instance in terms of recruitment or promotion. This does not amount to quotas, which remain unlawful.

But the coalition is not just implementing Labour’s equality programme – it is going further. First, it has said it will legislate to extend the right to request flexible working to all workers. Second, it is removing the default retirement age of 65. The government will also introduce measures to allow parents to share their maternity and paternity leave, subject to the two weeks’ compulsory maternity leave for women.†

However, the coalition is holding back on regulation. For instance it will not implement Labour’s plan to require private sector organisations with 150 or more staff to develop a scheme for gender pay reporting in 2013 if, by then, voluntary schemes have not been developed, although the government has said it will keep the matter under review.

Looming large, however, is the economic crisis, with the coalition’s programme of austerity in its wake, and this has implications for equality, which are not resource-free. HR professionals are needed to draw up action plans, oversee the introduction of equality measures, and monitor and assess progress, but such posts carry a cost. In the autumn of 2010, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that more than one in five private sector employers and two in five public sector employers said they would make redundancies in the next three months and HR departments are unlikely to escape such downsizing. As a result, equality expertise is likely to be lost.

Similarly, equality measures, such as awareness training for managers and mentoring schemes for ethnic minorities, are likely to be jettisoned as budgetary constraints force organisations to tighten their belts while continuing to preserve their core activities. Also, HR professionals in local authorities are unlikely to have the money to settle the many equal pay claims they are facing and will postpone the day of reckoning, because the legal process is lengthy, even if the eventual cost is greater.

In short, the forecast for equality is unsettled.

Susan Corby is professor of employment relations at the Business School at the University of Greenwich


Labour market outlook autumn 2010, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

The equality strategy – building a fairer Britain, Government Equalities Office.

Diary: The coalition government and discrimination law, Rubenstein, M, Equal Opportunities Review.

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