There’s a lot of talk about equality in the public sector right now. The subject has been brought into sharp focus by the Equality Act 2006, which comes into force on 6 April.
The new legislation has three main purposes. First, it will bring about the formation of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) – an amalgam of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Disability Rights Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality – which will be responsible for eradicating discrimination of all kinds, including issues around sexual orientation, gender, religious belief and age.
Second, it puts an onus on public sector bodies to eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religious belief when delivering services to the community, be it bus services, social care or education.
Finally, it creates a duty, known as the Gender Equality Duty (GED), on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between men and women within the public sector workplace and when exercising public services.
It is the latter that has been at the forefront of public sector employers’ minds of late. Richard Linskell, employment lawyer at law firm Dawsons, says the duty builds on existing equal pay and sex discrimination legislation. “But rather than wait for claims to be made, employers will need to investigate proactively and take action to correct inequalities,” he warns.
In practice, this means employers have to identify gender equality goals, show the action they are taking to implement them, publish and monitor these goals, and then review the equality goals every three years.
At Cambridgeshire County Council, director of people and policy Stephen Moir says his draft scheme has been approved by the council’s cabinet and will be in place by the April deadline.
He says the GED is all about creating a level playing field for men and women working in the public sector.
Initiatives in Moir’s draft include a commitment to ensure there is equal and fair access to training opportunities and a pledge to ensure there is rigour in the recruitment process.
“One step is to make sure job ads are placed where both men and women candidates have an equal chance of seeing them,” suggests Moir.
His draft also embraces positive action points around creating development programmes that encourage women to move into management positions, and the promotion of flexible and part-time working for employees with children.
More than anything though, it is the thorny issue of ensuring equal pay that will tax public sector organisations.
“Public sector employers must prioritise what will have the most impact in promoting equality, and equal pay is at the top of the list,” says Audrey Williams, a partner in the HR practice at law firm Eversheds.
But efforts to introduce equal pay predate the Equality Act and have met with varying levels of success in different areas of the public sector. NHS trusts, for example, have been working towards equal pay since 1997 through the Agenda for Change initiative.
According to John Northrop, director of research and information at NHS Partners, a consultancy that advises public sector employers on pay issues, the most reliable way of creating equal pay scales is through job evaluation methodologies, such as that supplied by the Hay Group.
Job evaluation works by breaking down job roles into their various components and then awarding points for the knowledge and skills required to do that job.
“This creates an objective view of each role where a certain point score will correspond to a certain pay level,” he says.
NHS Partners also helps to supplement this view with information on market forces taken from private sector recruitment surveys. This information is used to back up decisions to increase the pay levels of those skilled roles most in demand, such as management accountants or specialist IT staff.
The higher education sector has also been looking at equal pay for more than a decade, after a critical report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2000 forced the sector to modernise its HR practices.
Most higher education establishments have used a job evaluation tool called HERA (Higher Education Role Analysis) to implement equal pay. HERA breaks job roles into 14 elements and was developed by a consortium of 130 higher education establishments specifically for the sector.
At Leeds University, the deputy director of HR, Linda Mortimer Pine, used HERA to implement a single pay spine.
The project was conducted in two phases, and encompassed 7,500 staff. Support staff were moved across in August 2004, while the academic and professional employees moved onto the spine in December 2006.
Mortimer Pine says the most problematic aspect of the exercise involved the few job roles that were downgraded by the evaluation and therefore would have their pay cut. “Developing a good working partnership with the unions and negotiating acceptable pay protection terms are vital in these circumstances,” she says.
Pay protection is at the heart of these problems for local authorities, many of which are struggling to meet the deadline to deliver equal pay to their employees.
With a pending deadline of 31 March – ironically a week before the Equality Act comes into force – the Local Government Employers (LGE) body estimates that only one-third of authorities have so far put new pay structures in place.
What’s more, it says, those councils yet to complete the exercise are facing much larger potential settlement costs than previously anticipated – liabilities that across all authorities could add up to £5bn.
Principal strategy adviser at the LGE John Sutcliffe says a difficult situation has been made even worse by the involvement of lawyers who are encouraging private claims from employees. At the same time, the government is dragging its heels to help local authorities to finance equal pay schemes.
So with all these obstacles in their way, are public sector employers anywhere near ready for the Equality Act? In spirit, if not on paper, concludes Sutcliffe.
“Most local authorities are consumed by the pay issue but, in this process, are already fulfilling the spirit of the legislation,” he says. “For the moment the Equality Act is a bureaucratic sideshow.”
What does the Equality Act 2006 mean in practice?
All public sector bodies will have a general duty in the exercise of their public functions to eliminate unlawful sexual discrimination, and to promote equality between men and women. Known as the Gender Equality Duty (GED), this will affect all of their activities, from the provision of bus services to social care.
Public authorities will also have specific duties that will impact them in their capacity as employers. These include identifying gender equality goals and showing the action they will take to implement them. These will then need to be published, monitored and reviewed every three years.
Public authorities will therefore need to ensure they take active steps to eliminate sources of discrimination in their own employment practices.
Rather than wait for claims to be made, employers will need to investigate proactively and take action to correct inequalities.
What do employers need to do?
Affected employers will need to review every aspect of their employment practices and processes, from recruitment, to terms and conditions, access to promotion and training and dismissal.
It is likely that a wider range of information and statistics about employment practices than before will need to be collected so that employers can monitor and demonstrate that they are complying with the GED.
Source: Richard Linskell, employment lawyer, Dawsons
The Learning and Skills Council is conducting a number of activities to support further education providers in understanding the implications of the Public Sector Equality Duty and how it will work in reality.
This will include:
Developing case studies that demonstrate effective practice in a variety of contexts
Developing a guidance resource that includes an effective practice guidance for the implementation of the GED
Conducting dissemination events
Providing a forum for addressing any specific questions about the implications and implementation of gender equality duty.
Click here for more information