If you have never seen these two, take it from me, they are an excellent double act. Not only do they know their stuff, they can make it entertaining too. They managed to hold an audience for a whole day, while talking about what might otherwise have been some very dry subjects. They even managed to make TUPE sound interesting. No, really! If you are looking for someone to give an employment law briefing to your managers, you could do a lot worse than book them.
There were several interesting subjects that came up during the day, some of which I will write posts about over the next week or so, but an especially topical discussion was on the forthcoming Equality Bill. In case you had forgotten, this is the government’s plan to roll up all the previous equality legislation over the last thirty or so years into one act. Which would be fine if that’s all it’s going to do but, typical of this government, a few new things are going to be lobbed in for good measure.
It now looks likely that compulsory equal pay audits will not be in the bill, which will have many employers heaving sighs of relief. However, among other provisions is an extension of the legal duty on public bodies to actively promote equality, which already exists for race, disability and gender, to cover religion and belief, age, gender reassignment and sexual orientation. There are also proposals to extend the liability of employers for harassment of their employees by third parties in relation to race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief and age.
Probably the most controversial proposal is the legalisation of positive discrimination. The Equality Bill will give employers “greater freedom to ‘fast-track’ or select recruits from under-represented groups, as long as they are equally suitable” for the role in question. This will have politicians arguing for hours, if not days, about the principle of positive discrimination. In practice, though, such a law would make little difference. In my many years of recruiting staff, I have rarely come across two candidates who are equally suitable for the job in question. For all practical purposes, the number of occasions when this law can be applied will be few and far between.
But it may be that all this discussion is academic anyway. According to my two employment lawyer friends, there are strong rumours that the Equality Act 2009 will never happen. There is so much in it that, by the time it has been discussed, amended, rejected by the Lords then re-amended, it will have taken up a huge amount of Parliamentary time. Given that the government has other things it needs to do and that the current Parliament will self-destruct on 10 May 2010, there is probably not enough time to see this bill through. Other lawyers seem to agree that, if the bill is not published until May or June, it runs the risk of being overtaken by a general election. The government is, of course, vigorously denying that there will be any such delay.
My guess is that, while equality campaigners will no doubt be disappointed, most employers won’t be sorry if the Single Equality Bill doesn’t get passed. They are already suffering from legislation fatigue and, whatever the government might say, the proposals are more than just a consolidation exercise. I wouldn’t want to bet on it but I wouldn’t be surprised if this bill runs out of time. The task of consolidating and tidying up employment legislation will probably fall to the Tories.