Friday, 18 May 2012

The Terrible Burden of Equality

Since the 1970s, the concept of equality of treatment in the workplace has become more and more part of the accepted culture in Britain - which does not mean for a moment that it has been achieved, but relatively few would argue that it is not both ethically and indeed in terms of business efficiency the best way to work. Discrimination has been outlawed in terms of disability, gender, sexual orientation, age, race, transgender and belief/non-belief. There are exceptions where these are valid - for example, a church can require priests to be Christians; care homes can recruit male or female staff as necessary to ensure the privacy of their clients; and theatre directors can employ actors according to role requirements, and so on. In 2010, these were drawn together into the single Equality Act, which added the need to not discriminate on grounds of social background and required employers to protect their staff against discrimination by third parties, such as clients and customers.

These laws, as Home Secretary Roy Jenkins spoke of the first of them, provide a basic floor of rights - they are not rigid, nor stupidly dogmatic as the likes of the Daily Mail would have you think - political correctness gone mad! They have not achieved all their objectives - women, for example, still earn significantly less than men overall - but, working in Human Resources as I do, equality laws have made a huge difference in general attitudes over the last twenty years or so, and from the perspective of working to improve processes and culture within organisations, they have provided a major impetus in challenging attitudes and, in turn, changing behaviour.

So it is utterly depressing, though unsurprising, now to discover that the Coalition Government is reviewing these workplace equality laws in the name of cutting the awful burden of red tape, which even now is apparently holding back billionaire investors from pouring cash into job creation in the UK. In particular, they are looking to abolish:
  1. the rule that employers are liable for repeated discriminatory harassment of their staff by people from outside their organisation where inadequate steps have been taken to prevent it; 
  2. the ‘questionnaire procedure’ that enables people who think they have been unlawfully discriminated against to seek information and explanations from the person they believe has discriminated against them; 
  3. the power given to Employment Tribunals to recommend that an employer take certain steps to avoid others being affected by discrimination. 
In defence of the planned abolition, the Government argues that, for example in the case of harassment, good employers would still take action to stop harassment of their staff because, if they didn't, morale would get poor and performance suffer and staff leave.

A few points on that argument:
- good employers would take action; but if all employers were good, we wouldn't have needed the law to begin with and it wouldn't create a "burden" on anyone as they would already be doing what it required. There are plenty of bad employers.
- in the absence of the law, it will be harder for good employers to take action against harassers, as they will not have the backing of the law to do this.
- morale may get poor and staff leave - yes, they may do, and the harassers will have won and discrimination will have won.

So, in other words, if a member of the public comes in and makes offensive remarks to a disabled member of staff, their employer will be able to tell the staff member, "too bad, not my problem." And their only recourse will be to resign. One-nil to discrimination.

And on the other points:
- the questionnaire procedure is rarely used; but when it is, it is actually very helpful to an employer facing an employment tribunal complaint in terms of understanding the complaint and assessing whether or not the employer is, in fact, at fault and should seek to settle the claim. It IS a bit of paper, but it can save lots of other bits of paper and hours and days of litigation. Abolishing this would be a really counter-productive own goal, though our headline grabbing Government will doubtless portray it as a nail in the coffin of litigants.

- and the suggestion that, having found that someone has been discriminated against, employment tribunals will no longer be able to make recommendations for changing practice to the employer to prevent similar problems in future. How is this a burden of red tape as opposed to very useful advice to help the employer avoid similar problems and costs in the future and end discrimination against employees who have not yet gone to a tribunal?

Unless of course, deep down, you don't actually believe in equality. Unless, in fact, discrimination actually is your cup of tea and, chipping away, bit by bit, line by line, you'd rather refashion the Equality Act 2010 into the Charter for Bigots 2015.

From Baloo's Cartoon Blog

The Regime is carrying out a supposed consultation exercise on these proposals. Anyone can comment on them via this link. 

Link to consultation papers (closing date for responses 7 August 2012)

1 comment:

  1. shan oakes, Green Party18 May 2012 at 06:56

    well said. Thanks for this.