Thursday, June 26, 2008

Reducing discrimination

It's often quite a good sign when critics of a new policy choose to pretend that it is about something else entirely. So, for example, the Daily Mail and others are pretending that the Single Equality Bill which Harriet Harman announced today is about 'Positive Discrimination', giving women and ethnic minorities the chance to get jobs ahead of better qualified white men.

But the bill doesn't allow for that. What it does is to give employers the reassurance that if they have two candidates of equal merit (say, who have scored equally highly at interview), then they can pick on the grounds of diversity without having to fear getting sued. So a primary school where all the teachers are female can choose to hire a male teacher rather than an equally qualified female teacher on the grounds that it is good for children to have both positive male and female role models. Or an employer can make sure that their staff are representative of the wider community and of their customers. There is nothing forcing employers to do this if they don't want to.

The media, of course, has its own way of deciding how to 'break the tie' between equally qualified candidates. Preference is given to the candidate who has relatives who already works in the media, or who has independent sources of income and can therefore afford to work as an intern for several months. No wonder the response to Harman's proposals has been so ferocious.

The other measures in the bill also seem sensible. As a taxpayer, I want to be sure that my taxes aren't being spent by public sector organisations, or private companies which receive public money, in a way which discriminates by paying women a lot less than men. This bill will mean that they have to audit and publish people's salaries, so that this problem is less likely to happen. Replacing 116 different pieces of equality legislation, including 35 acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice and 16 European Commission directives with just one Bill is a good idea. And outlawing particular kinds of age discrimination against older people is important.

While this is all sensible, moderate stuff, there are ways that it could be amended to help reduce discrimination still further. Most part time workers are women, and part time workers are on average paid less per hour, more likely to get sacked and have fewer employment rights. There is an assumption built into the law that mothers will take time off to look after their children when they have a baby, when parents should be able to choose how to split the year's parental leave between mother and father. Childcare costs are too high, and yet childcare workers aren't paid enough. Lots of working-class women and men get stuck in low paid jobs with no opportunities for progression, while the highest earners get inflation-busting pay rises.

In one way it is a shame that the debate is going to be about what the Single Equality Bill is not, rather than what it actually does include and how it could be extended. But the response was always going to be like this - based on a combination of misrepresentation of what is proposed with the return of the oh so hilarious jokes about political correctness.

It is nice to see a government minister who doesn't duck this challenge and tells people the truth which lots of them don't want to hear, that women are paid less, that this is a result of entrenched discrimination, and that the government is going to try to do something about it.


At 7:08 pm , Anonymous Phil said...

"on the grounds of diversity"

It would be on the grounds of their sex or race.

You can't stop discrimination by discrimination.

At 4:19 pm , Blogger snowflake5 said...

Someone mentioned Harriet Harman approvingly to me on the doorstep regarding the anti-age discrimination stuff, unprompted. This from an old man who told me that he wasn't certain whom he would vote for and wasn't sure about Gordon. So score one for Harriet.

IMO It all depends on how fairly things are reported on the broadcast news, and clearly they covered the anti-age discrimination stuff. Anti-govt stuff in the newspapers is not that relevant. It's the "opinion" pieces on the BBC and ITN that you have to watch for.


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