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Featherstone: new tools will help make the workplace fairer

Employers will be asked to help tackle the gender pay gap by publishing equality data about their workforce on a voluntary basis, under plans announced today by Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.

The proposal, which will increase transparency and help employers identify problems, is aimed at organisations that employee 150 or more people and follows a similar commitment for the public sector announced earlier this year.

Speaking at the launch of the annual Female FTSE100 report, which shows that the number of women on the boards of Britain’s biggest companies has barely increased in the past three years, the Minister also announced that the Government will enact the Equality Act’s rules on positive action in relation to recruitment and promotion.

This will help employers make their organisations more representative by giving them the option, when faced with two or more candidates of equal merit, to choose a candidate from a group that is under-represented in the workforce. For example, a primary school that has no male teachers could choose to appoint a male candidate who is of equal merit to a female candidate. This does not mean allowing “quotas” or giving someone a job just because they are a woman, disabled or from an ethnic minority – positive discrimination is not acceptable and remains illegal.

Details of both measures are contained in the cross-government Equality Strategy, which was published this morning. It explains the Government’s new approach to tackling inequality, which sees a move away from the identity politics of the past to a vision of equality of opportunity based on treating people as individuals with individual needs.

As part of this new approach the Government Equalities Office will become a unit of the Home Office rather than a standalone department, bringing equality into the heart of Government.

Speaking to an audience of business leaders at London’s Docklands, Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said:

“We want to move away from the arrogant notion that Government knows best to one where Government empowers individuals, businesses and communities to make change happen. Different organisations face different challenges in promoting equality so if we are to get this right for everybody a much more flexible approach is needed.

“Today’s Equality Strategy is our blueprint for change, including plans for voluntary pay reporting and positive action in recruitment and promotion.

“These plans are absolutely not about political correctness, or red tape, or quotas. They are about giving individual employers the tools they need to help make the workplace fairer.”

NOTES FOR EDITORS

  • The full text of Lynne Featherstone’s speech is available online at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/ and http://www.equalities.gov.uk/
  • For further details on the Cranfield Business School’s Female FTSE100 report, contact Marie McCormack on 01234 754 425.
  • For all other enquiries contact the Government Equalities Office press office on 020 7035 3245.

Gender pay reporting

The Government will work with employers in the private and voluntary sectors to promote reporting of equality data on a voluntary basis - a voluntary approach will give better information and is more likely to drive successful change.  Each year the Government will review how many companies are publishing such information and its quality in order to assess whether alternatives are required, including using a mandatory approach through section 78 of the Equality Act.  While we work with business and the voluntary sector to ensure the voluntary approach is successful, we will not commence, amend or repeal section 78.

Positive Action

Section 159 of the Equality Act 2010 allows employers to use positive action in recruitment and promotion. It will come into force from April 2011; formal guidance for employers will be published early next year.

Employers will be allowed to consider using positive action where there is enough evidence to make them reasonably think that people with a protected characteristic suffer some sort of disadvantage because of that characteristic or are disproportionately under-represented.

When either of those two conditions apply, this new provision will enable an employer who is faced with making a choice between candidates who are of equal merit to opt to offer that job to a candidate with a targeted protected characteristic. For example, a nursery that only has female care staff could employ a male candidate ahead of a female candidate of equal merit in order to create more representative workforce.

Even if employers choose to use positive action, all recruitment or promotion must still be based on merit. Using these provisions does not mean that people will be recruited simply because of their gender or the colour of their skin.  That would be positive discrimination and that will remain unlawful. Where there is a superior candidate then that candidate should always be offered the job. POSITIVE DISCRIMINATION IS ILLEGAL IN THIS COUNTRY AND WILL REMAIN ILLEGAL.

Any use of positive action is entirely voluntary - employers will not be compelled to use it.  There are safeguards in place to prevent employers from misusing these measures and the provisions make clear that employers must not have any policies or practices which routinely favour candidates with a protected characteristic.

Equality Strategy

Building a Fairer Britain – the cross-Government strategy for tackling inequality - was published this morning. It sets out a new approach to equality, moving away from the identity politics of the past and to an approach recognising people’s individuality. It also sets out a new role for Government, moving beyond simply introducing more legislation, to promoting equality through transparency and behaviour change. Government will act as a catalyst and advocate for change, working with businesses, the voluntary sector and wider civil society to create equal opportunities.

The strategy can be downloaded from http://www.equalities.gov.uk/

Machinery of Government changes

The Government Equalities Office will be brought into the Home Office and cease to be a separate department.  The move is in line with the Equality Strategy’s commitment to making equalities a core part of Government business rather than an add-on.

The change is likely to take effect from 1 April next 2011, the start of the new financial year.

Subject to agreement of the House authorities, the Government intends to continue with separate Women and Equality Oral Questions, a practice that long predates GEO’s existence.