Not many employers will have had the time, nor indeed the inclination, to wade through the Final Report of the Equalities Review.
Its 168 pages of ‘equality-speak’ is long on analysis but short on concrete proposals, and it appears to be a self-serving justification for the work of the new super quango, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR).
There are 10 in all. The first is an attempt to redefine what is meant by an equal society: “An equal society protects and promotes equal and real freedom and substantive opportunity to live in ways that people value and would choose so that everyone can flourish. An equal society recognises people’s different needs, situations and goals and removes barriers that limit what people can do and can be”.
One is tempted to add ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. How long before this catchy definition finds its way into legislation?
Employers are likely to welcome some recommendations, notably the simplification of legislation and the development of a single Equalities Act covering all discrimination, which will hopefully provide some relief to anyone who has ever had to grapple with the range of Acts and regulations that currently cover this area.
Most of the other proposals will do little other than add another layer of bureau-cracy to running a business and increase costs.
For example, it proposes a standard reporting procedure, whereby employers are either required (in the public sector) or ‘encouraged’ (in the private sector) to fill in a form designed by the CEHR to provide data on their equality performance. It’s a safe bet that despite the report’s warm words, the form will be neither simple nor short.
As the report also suggests, the procurement and commission of goods and services by a whole range of public and quasi-public bodies provides an opportunity to promote equality by requiring that suppliers collect data more rigorously, and by requiring suppliers to adhere to ‘sound’ equalities principles. It is a certainty that this will be used as some sort of performance measure for suppliers of goods and services to the public sector.
There are going to be some hard choices ahead for public sector bodies – do they award the large public sector contract to company ‘A’, which is 20% cheaper, or opt for company ‘B’, which has better equalities credentials because its workforce is more diverse (or because it has successfully avoided being sued?). Best-value rules are going to have to give way to something far more nebulous.
It’s plain that some form of positive discrimination is back on the agenda. Of course, it’s not called that – it’s called ‘positive action’.
In the jargon of the report, the proposals are termed “time-limited proportionate balancing measures”. While it is said not to amount to positive discrimination or affirmative action, it’s difficult to see how anything – however temporary or well intentioned – that promotes one group over another can be anything other than positive discrimination.
This report does little to dispel the concerns expressed in some quarters that there is now an equalities ‘industry’ whose existence depends on introducing ever more creative and complicated solutions to problems of disadvantage. While no-one can seriously dispute that the various discrimination legislation has helped to change the workplace culture for the better, there must come a time for a realistic appraisal of whether further bureaucratic interference is justified, given the additional burdens it places on employers.
What the equalities review report covers
A single Equality Act covering sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, disability, religion and belief, transgender and age.
Obligations on employers to provide ‘equalities’ data.
Public sector contracts awarded on the basis of equalities ‘audits’.
Positive ‘action’ to redress long-standing areas of inequality.
Naming and shaming organisations whose equality performance is the subject of wilful neglect.
By Jeffrey Jupp, barrister, Seven Bedford Row