The Tories have said they won't implement "mistaken" provisions in the Equality Bill. Is this what Cameron meant by the 'Big Society'?
Last night the Equality Bill more or less reached the end of its Parliamentary journey. This marks a historic moment that turns a decade-old Labour commitment into reality. But while cross-party support at this stage means the Bill should enter the statute book this week, its future is not yet secure.
While the Lib Dems’ main objection is that this Bill is a missed opportunity for radical change, the Conservatives appear to have some lingering doubts about three of the Bill’s provisions in particular. Mark Harper, speaking for the Conservatives at last night’s debate said:
“If we form the Government after the next election, we will not bring those three requirements -socio-economic duty, the mistaken way in which the Government are tackling equal pay, and positive action – into force.”
Let’s look briefly at each of these requirements to which the Tories object:
• Socio-economic duty: as the National Equality Panel reported earlier this year, ‘socio-economic background’ (some might call it class) can be a more important factor in determining life chances than other matters such as gender. It can also act to reinforce and enhance other forms of inequality to do with race or disability, for example. The Bill puts a duty on all public bodies to tackle this disadvantage.
• Equal pay: the Equal Pay Act was introduced over thirty years ago and yet still on average, women are paid 22 per cent less than men. Clearly this is a complex issue, with occupational segregation and the ongoing gendered nature of caring roles playing a part in this discouraging disparity. The Bill requires public bodies with 150+ staff, and private and voluntary sector employers with 250+ staff, to publish details of their gender pay gap.
• Positive action: the Bill permits employers to positively discriminate where two candidates are equally qualified. It also extends the right for political parties to use all-women shortlists to 2030.
The main objection from the Tories throughout the Bill’s passage has been that these are issues better solved by ‘big society’ not big government. This returns to a theme in Cameron’s Hugo Young lecture from last year, where he said it was time to recognise that, “the size, scope and role of government in Britain has reached a point where it is now inhibiting, not advancing the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and increasing general well-being”.
What is less clear is how this ‘big society’ solution translates into reality. The closest the Conservatives have come to proposing practical alternatives to the clauses of this Bill is on the equal pay provisions – branded by Theresa May as a “bureaucratic nightmare” on businesses that are “struggling to stay afloat”. Here the Tories would only require those companies already found guilty by a tribunal of discrimination to publish their gender pay rates.
Beyond this specific point, Harper’s comments last night don’t do much to shake off a pervasive sense that the Conservative commitment to equality is uncertain behind closed doors and beyond the front bench. Appealing to ‘big society’ alone to solve some of these deep-rooted structural problems won’t work. More needs to be done to mobilise – and where necessary, require – public bodies and private employers alike to play their part.
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