The new Equality Bill will create a step change in opportunities in modern Britain. Ensuring diversity – both by protecting vulnerable groups where necessary and by building their capacity in the workplace – is essential if we are to create a wide pool of talent from which business can recruit.
A culture of equality is essential in the modern, globalised economy, and Britain’s effectiveness in the world relies on us being outward facing. Although, as a country and as a people, we have come a long way on equality, figures on the gender pay gap the employment rate for ethnic minorities and the discrimination still faced by some groups show there is a need to do more.
That is why a major plank of the Bill is the improvement of transparency so that people can see the extent and the limitations of current levels of equality and diversity. Through banning secrecy clauses on pay in the private and public sectors, and working towards greater public sector transparency on employment equality, we will allow for better scrutiny of progress.
Alongside this, we will work with business to improve transparency in the private sector, in particular through the introduction of a new kite-mark, as well as gathering and publishing evidence on the effectiveness of equal pay audits in closing the gender pay gap.
At the moment, employment tribunals can only make judgments work for the individual who brought the case. The Bill will allow tribunals to make recommendations that will benefit everybody in the workforce and stop similar types of discrimination happening again.
An important element of the Bill is the permission to use positive action to end cycles of inequality and to redress disadvantage. This will allow people to recruit under-represented groups into organisations or to develop talent within under-represented groups in a workforce through specific training or programmes. Not being able to take under-representation into account when it comes to choosing between two equally qualified candidates can be problematic for services such as the police, who want to increase the number of ethnic minority officers in the force.
Importantly, we are not proposing positive discrimination, which is unlawful in the UK this is when a person is given a job just because they are black, disabled, or a woman, regardless of their skill or qualification. Organisations will not have to take positive action if they don’t want or need to – merit still matters and the best candidate will always get the job.
Further, there must be evidence of this group being under-represented, and competing candidates must have the same level of skills and experience. Increasing the number of women MPs by taking positive action has changed the face of Parliament on behalf of women across the country they have raised issues such as maternity leave, childcare and flexible working.
Government and the public sector must put the power of public procurement behind achieving better levels of equality. The public sector spends £160bn every year purchasing goods and services from the private sector, and 30% of UK companies have contracts with the public sector. This spending power will now be used to help achieve equality targets.
More widely, the Bill will build the capacity of public bodies to shape their services in line with the needs of communities. It will also place a legal duty on public bodies to actively promote equality. This kind of duty already exists for race, disability and gender, and the new Bill will extend it to cover religion and belief, age, gender reassignment and sexual orientation.
As well as building on the last 40 years of UK discrimination law, the Equality Bill also aims to simplify the framework so people will be able to more easily find out about their rights and responsibilities. At present, our nine major Acts, numerous pieces of delegated legislation, and thousands of pages of statutory guidance pose a challenge even for organisations with large HR departments and teams of lawyers at their disposal, let alone small businesses.
The new Bill will de-clutter discrimination law by replacing all of this with one single piece of legislation – enabling organisations and individuals to find out quickly about their rights and responsibilities.
Barbara Follett is the under secretary of state from women and equality