The Government’s strategy

The Government has set out its strategy for tackling inequality. This is to be a new approach, “one that moves away from treating people as groups or ‘equality strands’ and instead recognises that we are a nation of 62 million individuals”. The Government aims to move away from legislation and towards promoting equality through transparency and behaviour change. The 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 Equality Strategy - Building a Fairer Britain”, which sets out these ambitions, makes for interesting reading. Not only does it detail changes that will be introduced but also it contains signposts to what is to come in the next year.

Gender pay reporting

The good news is that compulsory gender pay reporting is off the agenda for now. There will be a voluntary scheme in the private sector open to all businesses but particularly those with 150 or more employees. Large public sector bodies will also be strongly encouraged to include information on their gender pay gap as part of their public sector equality duties. This will be reviewed annually and the compulsory approach under section 78 of the Equality Act 2010 will remain open to the Government if it is decided the voluntary approach is not working.

This is clearly a welcome relief to employers. Compulsory gender pay gap reporting would undoubtedly have created a costly administrative burden for business when many are still struggling. It will be interesting to see whether employers do voluntarily publish information and how helpful that information is.

Positive action

From April 2011, the Equality Act’s provisions on positive action will come into force. This allows employers in recruitment and promotion, when there are two or more candidates of equal merit, to pick the candidate who comes from an under-represented group. This is voluntary and there is no obligation on employers to recruit/promote on this basis. Clearly the safest option will always be to recruit on merit alone. These provisions give employers a powerful tool to address underrepresentation issues if they need to, but do not create any obligations to use it.

The longer term

Longer term, a range of issues will be dealt with next year:

  • a social mobility strategy will be published in February 2011;
  • there will be further developments to promote more women on to the boards of listed companies, the Government stating its aspiration that 50 per cent of all appointments to public boards will be women by the end of the current Parliament;
  • an extension of the right to request flexible working to all employees. There will be consultation with businesses and the public as the Government develops its proposals;
  • encouragement of shared parenting from the start of pregnancy, and consultation on a new system of flexible parental leave, allowing parents of all types of families to share leave between them. However, the EU’s plans to extend paid maternity leave to 20 weeks may make this more difficult.

We believe that the Government’s new approach is welcome news for employers. They are relieved of the burden of gender pay audits, and can use positive action if they wish, but are not obliged to. Furthermore, the realisation that legislation is not always the answer is long overdue. 2011 is set to be a busy year!