Unequal measures

Glenys ThorntonBaroness Glenys Thornton is Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the House of Lords

The Conservative-led Government has said it is committed to equal rights and opportunities, but we can see as time goes on that this area will become another fault line in the Coalition. The Tories rowing back and refusing to implement parts of the Equality Act 2010, and the LibDems bleating and wringing their hands as reviews like Beecroft take hold. They can’t even bring forward a bill for equal marriages about which their political leaders agree. But more sinister work is afoot in the Tory Party on the fairness at work agenda, much of which they pretended to support when trying to clean up their nasty illiberal reputation before the last general election.

The Beecroft Review reveals what the Tories really believe about fairness at work. If they get their way, a combination of Beecroft and things like the proposals of Andrea Leadstrom MP, calling for companies with three employees or fewer being exempt from maternity and paternity rights, mean people should be very careful for whom they work. If you are a women, particularly of childbearing years, if you have a mental health problem, are or become disabled, are transgender, from a black and minority ethnic group or an older worker and you work for a small company your rights at work may be in jeopardy.

We need to be very concerned indeed about the independence, future resourcing and powers of the Equality and Human Right Commission (EHRC) whose job it is to help enforce equal rights and fairness.

The past week has seen the the government launch, as part of their Red Tape Challenge, “consultations” on some important employment equality issues, and including proposals making a commitment to further economies and more reviews into the work of the EHRC. We must watch out for the salami slicing of its independence, powers and resources.

Experts are already worried that the UK's status of the EHRC as a leading world class Human Rights Body is under threat. For example, there are three fairness at work issues already under review.

First, a proposal to repeal employers’ liability for third party harassment under section 40 of the Equality Act (EQA).This is about the duty of care that employers have to stamp out bullying in the workplace. In other words, employers can stand aside whilst an employee is bullied or harassed, and have no responsibility to try to stop bad behaviour.

Second, repealing employment tribunals’ power under section 124(3)(b) of the EQA, which was introduced so that tribunals could, in cases where unlawful discrimination towards an individual had happened, recommend the introduction of changes for all of an employer’s staff. In other words, to stamp out discriminatory practices overall.  If tribunals are unable to make such recommendations, the protection currently granted to the staff of discriminatory employers will be seriously undermined.

Third, repealing the statutory questionnaire procedure under section 138 of the EQA. This means a person who thinks they have suffered discrimination has a right to the information from their employer. This is very important in testing the strength or otherwise of a case from both parties point of view. Refusal to answer by an employer means a court or tribunal can draw an inference from the failure to respond. This right has existed since the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and has been judged so important that it has been included in almost all the equal rights legislation since. The right to information is something that has a long history and should be protected.

One of the people who championed the right to information is LibDem peer Lord Lester. I hope he will feel as passionate about defending it as he did about introducing it.

The Government’s threat to employees in the workplace is clearly a big agenda for all progressive organisations and individuals to be aware of, and Labour will work with them to protect fundamental rights and fairness.

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