The unveiling today of the Equalities Bill is a microcosm of the whole New Labour approach to politics, showcasing both the best and worst of the way it does things.
On the positive side, there is no doubt it is trying to tackle a serious social issue and its heart is generally in the right place. Much of the bill is worthy and therefore relatively uncontroversial.
But on the down side, it illustrates this government's tendencies to try and solve problems through legislation, interfering in every area, engaging in pointless symbolic gestures which have no effect on the problems it's trying to address, loading additional burdens onto business with little idea how they're going to pay for them, and leaking most of its proposals in advance (what happened to Gordon Brown promising to make major announcements to Parliament first?).
Much of the comment has focused on the proposal to allow firms to choose women or people from ethnic minorities ahead of white males when recruiting. There are two ways of looking at this. Either it is introducing positive discrimination, which is both pernicious and wrong. People should always, always, always be chosen for jobs solely on the basis of merit.
But my interpretation is somewhat different: it's the kind of pointless gesture politics so beloved of this government. Let's look at the wording closely. The measure only applies to candidates who are deemed to be equally suitable for the job. For a start, it's very rare to have two candidates who are absolutely equally suitable for a post. Employers will more often be weighing up whether someone's experience is better or worse than someone else's qualifications, which can be a difficult balancing act to judge.
But let's assume that two candidates are absolutely equal in ability, experience and qualifcations. What then? Well, the bill only says that employers are allowed to choose a woman or ethnic minority candidate ahead of a white male, not that they have to do so. In other words, the exact situation we have at the moment. As far as I'm aware, there's no legislation requiring employers to hire white males, so this is yet another example of Labour choosing to use legislation to address a problem which doesn't exist and in doing so annoying a lot of people for no good reason. 42 days anyone?
Although much of the bill is OK, it also has other flaws. The proposals regarding greater openness for pay structures within a company are a good idea in principle, but business leaders have complained that they will impose additional costs on some firms, so the Government does need to address those concerns.
But the bill overall has the problem that much of what it is trying to address is the product of social attitudes and practices, which aren't easily legislated away. Take the issue of the pay gap between men and women, for instance. Yes, there are certainly still instances of women being paid less than men for doing the same job, but the situation is a bit more complex than simple discrimination.
One reason why women overall earn less over a lifetime is that they are more likely to be in low-paid jobs such as cleaning, while men are still more likely than women to be company directors or High Court judges, for example. There is also the issue for women regarding pregnancy and childcare. If a woman takes a career break to have a baby, even if she comes back into the same job, with the same hours and same pay - which certainly doesn't always happen, I admit - then she's likely to find that her male counterparts have advanced their careers while she's been away, so she's now playing catch-up.
These aren't really issues which can be solved through legislation, but through changes in social attitudes. Until we escape from the attitude that some jobs such as cleaning are "women's work"; until childcare and family responsibilities are shared much more equally than they are now; until women's experience is valued as much as men's (managing a family should be seen as involving many of the same skills as managing a small business, for instance), then legislation will at best only tinker at the edges.
But when that legislation creates pointless rows over gestures surrounding positive discrimination, it's certainly arguable that it could do more harm than good to the cause of equality.
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