Reasons to be equal

The Equality Bill reached committee stage last month, just days after the government shelved plans to allow fathers to take six months’ paternity leave, blaming the recession for its u-turn.

On the face of it, the Equality Bill looks more recession-proof than the paternity plans, with its main purpose being to replace nine existing anti-discrimination laws with a single act. As Anna Wallace, public affairs officer at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: “[It is] to consolidate reams of equality legislation that has grown over the past four decades. For this reason, the bill should be welcomed by employers, regardless of the current downturn”.

But, by the time many of the measures outlined in the bill become law, the economic climate may be very different. Audrey Williams, partner at law firm Eversheds, said: “Many of the proposals in the bill are long-term. They are going to be coming in probably autumn 2010 at the earliest, and some provisions two or three years after that.”

The bill contains measures to tackle discrimination on grounds of age, sex, race, religion, disability, sexual orientation and social class. One of the most eye-catching is the requirement for large employers to report their gender pay gap by 2013. But, organisations such as the EEF, CIPD and the CBI have opposed this. David Yeandle, the EEF’s head of employment policy, said: “We do not think this is going to solve the problem of the pay gap between men and women. It will, without doubt, create additional administrative burdens and costs.”

The bill requires companies to report average male and female salaries, which has raised fears that organisations with too few women in higher-paid roles, which are trying to attract more, could be forced to publish statistics that would deter female applicants.

At last month’s European Commission gender equality conference in Brussels, Vladimir Spidla, commissioner for employment, social affairs and equal opportunities, said: “The economic downturn has affected men more severely than women, reflecting the fact that many of the sectors hardest hit employ a predominantly male workforce.”

But this is not necessarily a reason for reversing the trend towards greater gender equality. “Still women generally earn less than men,” said Spidla. “Now, more than ever, we need to make the best use of all our human resources, both women and men.”

At the same conference, Vera Baird, solicitor general and leading minister on the Equality Bill, said the recession should not be allowed to erode women’s rights. Her view is shared by TUC general secretary Brendan Barber. “With many men losing their jobs, more women are finding themselves the sole earners,” he said. “Legislation like the Equality Bill is crucial to ensure women are not being underpaid.”

As the bill moves through parliament, it remains to be seen whether opposition to measures such as gender pay gap reporting are taken into account. But the bill is unlikely to be derailed by the recession. “The question must be, ‘does the recession justify discrimination?’,” said Williams. “The government’s answer to that would be ‘no’.”