Equality supremo Harman admits new law will lead to discrimination against men
PLANS to give businesses the power to discriminate in favour of women and ethnic minorities have provoked a furore among both businesses and equality campaigners.
Harriet Harman, the Equalities Secretary, yesterday unveiled proposals to tackle the gender pay gap and outlaw discrimination against consumers on the grounds of age.
The forthcoming Equality Bill would allow organisations to hire a woman or worker from an ethnic minority over a white male of equal ability.
The legislation, to be published as part of the Queen's Speech, would also force public-sector organisations to publish the gap in what they pay men and women.
Companies bidding for work funded by taxpayers' money – roughly 30 per cent of the private sector – will also be expected to demonstrate they are committed to equality.
Ministers hope this will encourage private-sector firms to follow suit by being more transparent about pay. Gagging clauses in employee contracts will be outlawed, allowing staff to compare pay packets.
Ms Harman agreed the Bill could discriminate against men, but added: "You don't get progress if there isn't a bit of a push forward."
She said it would take 80 years to close the gender pay gap, and highlighted statistics showing that for every pound a man earns, a woman still earns just 87p. In sectors such as the financial services industry, the gap is more than 40 per cent.
Although the new proposals stop short of compulsory pay audits previously suggested by the government, business leaders attacked them as "heavy-handed".
The British Chambers of Commerce warned the plans would be a "bureaucratic nightmare" for smaller firms.
David Frost, director-general of the chambers said: "Increasing the complexity of the tendering process for public contracts and putting more emphasis on positive action in the workplace are unlikely to make life simpler for anyone – least of all business."
Business representatives have argued the gender pay gap is not down to sexism but "cultural" differences.
Peter Schofield, of the Engineering Employers Federation, said: "The vast majority of companies do not set out to discriminate on pay. As the government's statistics illustrate, key drivers of gender pay differences are different educational experiences and choices after childcare."
But Dr Katherine Rake of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality, said the proposals did not go far enough.
The Liberal Democrats also warned of a growing discrepancy between public- and private-sector rules on pay.
Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dems' equality spokeswoman, said: "Without compulsory pay audits for the private sector, these proposals will represent a very real victory for the hawks in the Cabinet. Public-sector equality rights are fast becoming an ivory tower private-sector employees can only dream of.
"A few questionnaires for government suppliers on their equality policy are going to do little to change the day-to-day opportunities for the 20 million people in the private sector."
Meanwhile, the government yesterday published gender pay gaps for Whitehall departments.
The biggest offender was the Treasury, with a pay gap level of 26 per cent, followed by the Department for Transport at 21 per cent. In the government's Equalities Office, women are, on average, paid 4 per cent more than men.
The Equalities Bill would also ensure older people are not denied access to health or travel insurance, or forced to pay exorbitant rates, without justification other than their age.
It would stop NHS doctors denying older people treatment on the basis of age – a move which is expected to cost the state billions of pounds a year.
Ms Harman said discrimination made no sense when the number of people aged over 85 was set to double in the next 20 years.
However, anti-age discrimination campaigners pointed out that the Bill did not outlaw a default retirement age.
Laws pave way to greater access to wage details
I am a private-sector employer. What will this legislation mean for me?
At the moment, very little. These are proposals that have yet to make it on to the statute books. But this will give you the right to discriminate in favour of women or ethnic minority candidates ahead of white men of equal abilities when recruiting for jobs.
If you are hoping to do business with the public sector, you could be asked to produce your equality policies before being awarded a contract.
Why would I want to discriminate against a man in favour of a woman?
Harriet Harman, the Equalities Secretary, claims the proposals are designed to assist in the situation where firms have male and female candidates of equal abilities but want to promote women to achieve a better gender balance within their company.
The new rules would remove any threat of recriminations that they were discriminating against the male candidate if the woman got the job.
But isn't this kind of "positive discrimination" wrong?
The government believes it is necessary to tackle the "serious inequalities" that exist within the workplace. Firms will not be required to implement positive discrimination.
As a female employee in the private sector, will this mean I will be paid the same as male colleagues doing the same job?
Not necessarily. The legislation would try to establish "norms" where firms publish their pay structure and gender pay gap. It will not be compulsory to do so pre-emptively, although an employment tribunal may order it to. The bill also means you can compare wages with male colleagues and challenge bosses who unlawfully pay you less.
As a boss, should I be worried?
Only if you are discriminating against staff on the basis of gender.
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east