Minister for Women and Equality scraps Harman’s equality law

Theresa May - Home Secretary and minister for ...

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Theresa May favours “fairness” over “equality”

In a glorious act of doublethink, the Minister for Women and Equality Theresa May has scrapped a key piece of legislation under the Equality Act, favouring a greater emphasis on the dubious word “fairness” rather than “equality”. Perhaps she misread her job title.

The legislation was a legal requirement that would have forced public authorities to take disadvantage and inequalities into account, to assess whether or not they were addressing inequalities when making policy decisions. The measure was an important part of the Equality Act passed earlier this year by Labour’s former minister for equalities, Harriet Harman. Theresa May dismissed the legislation as “ridiculous” and described the measure as “socialism in one clause”.

“They thought they could make people’s lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better”, May said. Clearly Harman had been taking her job title too seriously when she passed the equality measure, a trap May is ensuring she does not fall into. The problem with the word ‘equality’, May went on, “is that it has been seen to mean equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity”. Which is clearly a bad thing. However, she appears to have missed an important point, as Lian Venner, head of Equalities at Unison, explained. “All studies show that a child born in a poorer area has their destiny marked out from the start and will do less well at school and work”, Venner stated. “The point about the socio-economic duty was to look at that and see where public services could make a difference”.

The legislation had shown a recognition by Labour that public bodies had a responsibility to assess how they could help to reduce inequalities caused by class factors, for instance. Whilst May retorted that she does not “believe in a world where everybody gets the same out of life”, shadow women and equalities minister Yvette Cooper was understandably disappointed. “Just as cuts are about to strike, the government is removing protection for those on the lowest income, who are likely to be hit hardest”. Granted, May’s comment was focused on her belief that equality of opportunity is more realistic and important to focus on than equality of outcome, however it is seen by many as a step-back for the party that was selling itself as the party of “change” in the run-up to the General Election.

Perhaps more worrying is May’s statement that she favours a greater focus on “fairness” rather than equality”. Moving away from regulation and legislation, it appears as if the government is moving towards encouraging organisations to choose to improve inequality, rather than enforcing them to do so. The term “fairness” has been a word that has been favoured by the coalition government, indeed it is hard for ministers to get a sentence or two out without using the word somewhere in their speech. Perhaps with all the cut-backs they no longer can afford a thesaurus. However, the worrying aspect is that the term “fairness” is more ambiguous and less easily defined as “equality” – after all, what is “fair” differs from individual to individual, while the term “equality” can more easily be defined and legally upheld. Even Theresa May herself admitted: “I recognise that fairness is a word that many people will feel is not as specific as equality”.

In support of Cameron’s Big Society idea, May describes a future where “government will no longer dictate how people should behave. Instead we will put in place an architecture to support business and wider society to do the right thing”. Which is nice. After all, businesses and corporations are renowned for ‘doing the right thing’…aren’t they? Next on the agenda will be tackling the gender pay gap, with new measures to be announced in the next few weeks. One wonders whether these new measures will be about what is “fair” rather than on actual gender pay equality, after all, Theresa May does not “believe in a world where everybody gets the same out of life”.


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