MP for Hornsey and Wood Green
There were four sessions of the Equality Bill Committee last week, so for this post I’ve picked out the arguments around unequal pay between men and women. So to the normal anonymous commentators who take exception whenever I blog about discrimination about women – I expect to hear from you shortly!
First up – hypothetical comparators. When you bring a case for discrimination in pay, currently the woman has to point to a similar job being done by a man – i.e. there has to be a real comparator to prove discrimination. This is quite different to any other case you can bring on discrimination. If you are black and believe you have been discriminated against – you don’t need a comparator at all – for example.
The reason this continually comes up as an issue – and as a barrier to women being able to bring claims – is that there are many jobs that are almost solely done by women – dinner ladies, lots of carer jobs, seamstresses etc. Traditionally these ‘women’s’ jobs have been paid poorly as women’s work has always borne the stigma of not being as important as men’s work and consequently is paid at a lower rate.
I am not sure why the Government continues to resist the introduction of the ability to use a hypothetical comparator. However, resist the Solicitor General did. My arguments weaved around the fact that there often isn’t ‘evidence’ because men don’t do the comparator work – and so insisting on a traditional comparator locks out whole areas of possible discrimination from action. This argument has been put many, many times by others before. It is used elsewhere quite commonly to resolve the issue around women’s work not having a comparator. And it is clearly outrageous that it is only in discrimination in women’s pay that a real comparator is required. So – shame on the Government on this one!
Another big issue was Clause 73 – gender pay gap information. This is the one you may have heard about – and is the Government’s proposal that companies of over 250 people will have to publish the pay patterns for their male and female employees – so that employees can see for themselves if they are being discriminated against and external bodies like the Equality and Human Rights Commission can judge if there is systemic discrimination.
Problem from my point of view is this clause only suggests that the information be published and leaves it as voluntary until at least the year 2013. As the Equal Pay Act was passed 39 years ago and women are still paid 17% less then men for equal work – we are sick of waiting.
So instead of this weak measure, the Lib Dems think there should be compulsory pay audits – and that if companies (and we think over 100 employees would be a much better number to encompass a reasonable proportion of the population 80% of whom work in the private sector) had to publish this information – women would be able to bring claims as they could see if they were unfairly paid. So could men for that matter.
So our argument is about letting employers off the hook for another four years. And as I pointed out to the Minister – we don’t know what hue the next government will be and if (heaven forefend) it is a Tory government – then hell would freeze over before they introduced the compulsory element.
I used many a persuasive argument. Some of the Labour backbenchers in committee agreed with me. But the Minster was determined to keep it voluntary – referring continually to the CBI, the Equality Commission and the Government agreeing on ‘metrics’ by which progress could be measured. So – I might as well have been whistling Dixie as the Minster was set in stone and clung to somehow this all being alright in the future.
Then there was the issue of allowing ‘representative action’. Currently, if a woman believes she has been discriminated against in terms of pay she can take the claim to an employment tribunal. Firstly – you have to be quite brave and assertive to take a claim forward. Secondly, the resources for tribunals etc are so inadequate that there is currently a backlog of women waiting – and waiting – and waiting. Thousands and thousands of women are held in this backlog – and women have actually died waiting for justice. There is nothing in the Bill that increases resources – and that would not be the whole answer anyway.
The proposed amendment would allow ‘representative action’. This would mean that if there were other women who were discriminated against in the same way – they could be represented as a group by either the trade unions or indeed the Equality Commission. But again the Government resisted this most obvious of moves forward – backed as they proudly claimed by the CBI.
Well – we were backed by all the women’s’ organisations you can imagine – who are just sick of warm words from the Government but no real action. For we don’t just need laws about equal pay – there also needs to be the ability to bring cases.
The Government, I think, got the message – as the Solicitor General said they were going to consult (again) and whilst she attacked me stridently over the suggestion during the debate – at the end she conceded that they would probably be able to bring something along these lines back in the autumn when the legislation passes to the Lords for its scrutiny there.
So – we fight on – and will bring some of these key issues back at the Report Stage of the Bill in the Commons chamber. The Government is clearly in thrall to the CBI and refuses to take the steps that would deliver equal pay. How can a Labour government fail so monumentally – even if only as their legacy – to deliver this most important of steps towards equal pay for women?