Tuesday, 28 April 2009

A fairer future

Yes, we are to have a fairer future, Ms Harman (Leader of the House of Commons) has so ordained. If you want to read in more detail here's a document:

A Fairer Future

This legislation is attempting to do a number of things, one of which is to bring together a number of other Acts relating to discrimination such that all the relevant legislation is in one place. Which is fine. However it also seeks to do some more novel things, amongst these are the use of public procurement to improve equality and the power of Ministers to require employers to publish so-called "pay gender gap" reports.

The use of public procurement to improve equality is an interesting concept. Here is one description of how it could be done:

"A local council is commissioning a significant building project, in the context of a large social regeneration scheme, in an area where women are particularly affected by disadvantage.This requires work from plumbers, carpenters and plasterers, trades in which women are under-represented nationally.The contract for this work could include a condition that the contractor runs a positive action programme to train women in these skills."
It's the last sentence that really gets me, the root to greater equality is by running "positive action programmes" to train disadvantaged women in plumbing and carpentry. What is a positive action programme anyway and how does it relate to training? Is training better if it's positive action training?

Note that this paragraph includes a hidden assumption that lies at the heart of much of this Government policy, that is if raw numbers show a disparity then inequality must be the cause. I think few would doubt that there are more male plumbers than female, but does this mean that women are under-represented in these trades? Could, just could, it mean that relatively few women want to become plumbers in the first place..?

In an interview Ms Harman has also said:

"All other things being equal, if there are two companies bidding for a contract and one has a much better equality record, then it would be down to the procuring authority to choose that one."

But if you read the documents, it is claimed that promoting equality is good for business, so the company with the better equality record should be superior to the other bidding company anyway, in which case the situation described will not arise.

The Fairer Future document is also fond of the word "trump", for example:
"Social class still holds a powerful grip over people’s lives: class trumps ability..."
"... class trumps gender when it comes to life expectancy."
But it seems a clear consequence of this legislation that equality policy is likely to trump other more mundane things such as value for money and quality of work, but then when has this Government ever been interested in such things when it spends the public's money.

The Gender Pay Gap is another classic case of using statistics to mislead. In the section "Why we need the Equality Bill", the first cited reason is: "Despite progress since 1997 to reduce the gender pay gap, women still earn, on average, 22.6% less per hour than men."

This figure on its own is just completely meaningless, it takes no account of demographics and makes no reference to the concept of equal pay for equal work, which is actually what the pay gap is supposed to be about. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Government takes the power to order employers to publish their gender pay and equality reports only for them to show that there isn't much of a pay gap after all!

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