By Lucy Lewis, Firm: Lewis Silkin LLP
The UK Government Equalities Office has published a gender equality roadmap, which sets out proposed actions to tackle persistent gendered inequalities. This includes a number of potential changes to employment law.
On 3 July, the UK Minister for Women & Equalities, Penny Mordaunt, set out her vision for gender equality in the UK with the publication of the document ‘Gender equality at all stages: A roadmap for change’.
The stated aim is to financially empower women from school to retirement. The roadmap considers how inequality is faced at every stage of a woman’s life, and is intended to define and guide how to tackle the barriers women face.
This comes against the background of other measures looking at the treatment of women in the workplace, including:
- The Women and Equalities Commission (‘WEC’) report on sexual harassment in the workplace, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (‘EHRC’) report on sexual harassment at work, both of which expressed considerable concern about this issue and urged radical reform.
- The Government’s consultation paper on options for preventing the misuse of confidentiality clauses, particularly in situations of workplace harassment and discrimination.
- The Government’s consultation paper on extending redundancy protection for women who are pregnant or on maternity leave.
We are also awaiting developments following a Government announcement that a new Code of Practice on sexual harassment at work would be developed by the EHRC, together with a consultation on the evidence base for a new legal duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Last month an alliance of more than 20 unions, charities and women’s rights organisations (#ThisIsNotWorking) launched a petition calling for a new law to make employers prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces
Employment law changes in the roadmap
There are a number of proposals in the roadmap, which may affect employment law:
Review of the shared parental leave and pay schemes
The Government is conducting an evaluation of shared parental leave and pay, and the roadmap says that this will allow them assess the effectiveness of the current policy and consider next steps on modernising the existing system. They also intend to consult on increasing the transparency of organisations’ parental leave and pay policies, although there is no explanation as to how this might be done. The roadmap ‘celebrates’ employers who uplift shared parental pay beyond the statutory rate, and encourages all employers to do this where possible, but stops short of suggesting any change to the statutory rate of shared parental pay. This is currently lower than maternity pay for the first six weeks, and as established in a recent Court of Appeal decision it is not sex discrimination to pay different rates of maternity and shared parental pay. It is also notable that the government itself does not currently equalise maternity and shared parental leave pay.
Consultation on dedicated employment rights for carers
This recognises that women tend to provide most informal care for others, and will include looking at carer’s leave. Although no details are given, this may be a right similar to other types of family-related leave such as parental leave. The new EU Work-life balance Directive will introduce five days’ unpaid carer’s leave per year, but this would only provide a very limited right, and any proposals coming out of the consultation may well go further than this.
A review of the enforcement of equal pay legislation
Marking 50 years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Government will review the enforcement of equal pay legislation to ensure it is working as effectively as possible. This will include considering the circumstances where mandatory equal pay audits could be appropriate. It is worth noting that Employment Tribunals already have the power to order an equal pay audit if an employer is found to have breached the law, but this has been used very little in practice. This proposal may involve compulsory audits at an earlier stage in proceedings.
A consultation to help ensure workplace sexual harassment legislation is fit for purpose
This will include consulting on whether to extend the three-month time limit for employment tribunal claims after any incident of harassment or discrimination, which was something originally raised by the WEC in their report on workplace harassment. The roadmap also expresses support for the EHRC development of technical guidance on sexual harassment and harassment at work, which it says will be published later this year and form the basis of a statutory code of practice. However, there is no direct reference to a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment.
Strengthening and clarifying laws on third party harassment
This is referenced in Penny Mordaunt’s statement as part of the wider consultation on sexual harassment legislation, but is not specifically included in the roadmap. The provision in the Equality Act 2010 which required employers to protect their employees from harassment from third parties (such as clients and customers) was removed by the then Conservative Government in 2013 on the grounds that it was not necessary, so it will be interesting to see how this is positioned in the new consultation. Currently, there are no specific laws on third party harassment, and an employer will only be liable if it has harassed or discriminated against the employee itself.
Many of the proposals in the roadmap arise from the reports and other developments summarised above. This new announcement suggests that the Government is serious about improving women’s equality, but we will have to wait to see how quickly matters progress. We are anticipating the EHRC’s new guidance and code relatively soon.