Equality Bill published today raises concern from business lobbyists - but is that fair?

The controversial Equality Bill, which business lobby groups say will create more unnecessary red tape for small businesses, today came closer to becoming legislation as it was published by Equality Minister Harriet Harman.

The proposed Bill streamlines all equalities legislation into a single Bill and aims to foster equality among people of any gender, sexual orientation, race, disability and age. Among other things, it will force employers to reveal how much they pay staff, and require businesses with more than 250 employees to carry out pay audits to ensure equality.

In a statement released today, Harman said, “The Equality Bill is part of building a strong fair future for Britain out of the downturn. That means fairness and opportunity. Especially in tougher economic times, we need to face the problems fairly and we need to look for a fairer future.

“Though we have ensured new rights and opportunities for disabled people, for women, black and Asian people and older people – there is still unfairness and discrimination to tackle. And this Bill will take the action necessary to tackle it.”

But business lobby groups have long been critical about the Bill. The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) yesterday issued a press release that indicated it thought business owners would be disadvantaged by the extra red tape new legislation would involve. It drew on survey results that found 47% of 3,400 businesses questioned had problems navigating employment law.

Miles Templeman, director general of the Institute of Directors, said, "This is a further example of unnecessary regulation at a time when companies, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, are struggling to survive."

And back in December, the Confederation of British Industry and the BCC expressed concern that the Equality Bill would deter small businesses from the procurement process for the London Olympics in 2012.

But we can’t help but think in the long run, this is a really important and useful Bill.

Firstly, it will make employment and discrimination law easier and more succinct – hence the point of putting all discrimination legislation into one Bill. This will surely decrease the amount of bureaucracy small business owners face in the future, even if they have to make some minor adjustments now.

Secondly, equality should always be a number one priority. Yes, making sure you’re not discriminating against anyone can take more vigilance, and possibly even be more time consuming. But isn’t it better to encourage talent from all walks of life, regardless of the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation, and create a workplace where everyone feels completely comfortable, than to risk excluding potentially the best talent?

Isn’t it better to have to be transparent about pay than to be seen to be paying unfairly because of discrimination? Let’s not forget the gender pay gap between men and women still stands at 21%.

Wouldn’t you rather be known as an employer who is completely fair, who doesn’t discriminate on ludicrously archaic and just plain insulting terms? After all, you certainly don’t want to be the employer who thinks five minutes spent filling out an extra form is more precious than creating a fair, unbiased workplace where all are welcome.

We know how much red tape is a massive pain in the arse for small businesses. But there is no concrete evidence to even suggest the passing of this Bill will make it particularly worse for small business owners. And this Bill is striving for a greater good – a more fair society in the UK and more equality in the workplace.

Really, looking at the bigger picture, that’s the most important thing at stake here.

Here are the main points of the Bill, as outlined by the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons:

  • Banning age discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities or services and public functions. Things that benefit older people, such as free bus passes, will still be allowed.
  • Increasing transparency in the workplace. If inequality remains hidden, we can’t measure it and make progress;
  • Making Britain fairer through a single equality duty, which will require public bodies to consider the diverse needs and requirements of their workforce, and the communities they serve, when developing employment policies and when planning services;
  • Extending positive action measures to allow employers to make their organisation or business more representative;
  • Allowing political parties to use all-women shortlists beyond 2015;
  • Reducing nine major pieces of legislation, and around 100 statutory instruments into a single Act, making the law more accessible and easier to understand, so that everyone can be clear on their rights and responsibilities.
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