The Government has published ‘The Equality Strategy – Building a Fairer Britain’, setting out its new approach to equality. The document can be viewed here.

Key points of interest for employers are:

  • Positive action in recruitment and promotion. Section 159 of the Equality Act 2010 will come in to force in April 2011, permitting employers – on a voluntary basis – to take “positive action” when recruiting or selecting for promotion. There are, however, some conditions on use of the power under the Act including that the person in question must be “as qualified as” (somewhat unhelpfully, not defined in the Act) other applicants to be recruited or promoted.  

As use of the power is voluntary, individuals should not be able to challenge an employer for not taking positive action. There is a risk, however, that an unsuccessful candidate for a job or promotion from what he considers to be an under-represented group might argue that the employer’s failure to avail itself of Section 159 is evidence of a discriminatory approach. Equally, the omission of any definition of “as qualified as” leaves it open to a majority-group candidate to argue that in some respect he was better qualified than the successful candidate and therefore that he has been prejudiced by his race or sex, etc., even though his group was over-represented in the workforce. Employers may therefore be wary of taking positive action even when the conditions are satisfied.  

  • Voluntary gender pay reporting in the private sector. The Government is to work with businesses and others to develop a voluntary scheme for gender pay reporting in the private and voluntary sectors, aimed at those with 150 or more employees. There is to be an annual review of the number of companies releasing information and the quality of that information. Over time the Government will decide whether alternatives to this voluntary approach are required – possibly including adopting the mandatory approach available under Section 78 of the Equality Act 2010.  
  • Promoting transparency and good practice in the public sector. The new specific duties (upon which the Government recently consulted) made to support the public sector equality duty will require large public bodies to be transparent about the composition of their workforces.  
  • Strong action on pay discrimination. The document states that the Government will take “strong action where there is evidence of discrimination, for example, against women on pay”. The Government is shortly to issue a consultation document in this respect.  
  • Encourage the promotion of women onto boards of listed companies. The Government is to work with business to encourage the promotion of more women onto the boards of listed companies. The Government recently undertook a ‘call for evidence’ on this issue and will report next year on the relative lack of representation on corporate and business boards.  
  • Flexible Working. The Government has reiterated its earlier proposal to extend the right to flexible working to all employees. It is to consult on this during the first quarter of 2011. The Government has already announced that the right will be extended to parents with children under 18 from April 2011.
  • Parental Leave. As it had previously announced, the Government is to consult in early 2011 on a new system of flexible parental leave under which both parents (of all types of families) will be able to share the statutory leave between them.  
  • Removal of the Default Retirement Age. The Government is to respond to its earlier consultation on the phasing out of the Default Retirement Age before the end of the year.