Dominic Raab is MP for Esher & Walton
In September 2011, the coalition put the Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties) Regulations 2010 into law. Three years on, they are a competitive candidate for the most daft piece of red-tape on the statute book. It’s time they were binned.
The 2011 regulations were a hangover from Harriet Harman’s 2010 Equality Act. The aim was to force 40,000 public bodies – including schools, councils, police forces, government departments and quangos – to publish annual information about the social composition of their staff, and what they are doing to promote more diversity.
As they grappled with budgetary cuts, schools, police and councils needed this new bureaucratic burden like a hole in the head. The impact assessment conservatively estimated the administrative cost of complying with these new duties would be up to £26 million per year. Last September, an independent review for the Government Equalities Office dismissed as ‘not credible’ the suggestion that the new duties would somehow lead to a net gain to the public sector of £40-45 million – by magically making public services more efficient and reducing the social costs of inequality.
Once public bodies publish social make-up of their staff and diversity goals, they shouldn’t expect anyone to read this politically-correct dross in a hurry. There is no process for evaluating the effects of the regulations. As the independent review concluded: ‘there is little hard evidence … to demonstrate that the [Public Sector Equality Duty] is leading to better decision-making and improvements in policy and service delivery’. The Chair, Rob Hayward, called for the regulations to be modified or scrapped.
The regulations are vague, costly and divisive. The government should leave this kind of social-engineering to Labour, and make the positive case for a meritocratic vision of fairness. And whilst ditching the Regulations, the government could usefully take another look at section 159 of the 2010 Equality Act – which also entered force in 2011, on the coalition’s watch.
Section 159 allows employers to exercise positive discrimination in job interviews, where they have two or more candidates who are as ‘qualified’ as one another. So, after an initial recruitment trawl produces a short-list of candidates with similar paper qualifications, an employer is licensed to select according to seven ‘protected characteristics’ – from gender to religious belief – assuming such groups are under-represented in the workforce, although firms have no way of knowing whether their social mix is sufficiently diverse.
After three years in operation, there has been no evaluation of the extent to which employers are exercising this power, nor any assessment of the impact it is having in the work-place. We can only rely on the accounts of people like Kat Akingbade, a young woman who was offered her dream job as a Channel 4 television presenter in 2011. She was crest-fallen to be told by her boss that she was hired because she is black. Bravely, she gave an interview in which she nailed the objections to positive discrimination:
“I was raised to understand that the world did not owe me a living and I have prided myself on being someone who never accepts something for nothing. But my confidence was fundamentally shaken on that day, the day I learnt my CV was meaningless and I was simply fulfilling a quota…Positive action is yet another unhelpful initiative that makes no allowance for why under-representation happens in the first place…Employers will face the same pressure to diversify the workforce and will recruit on the basis of protected characteristics, not on merit…Positive discrimination robs an individual of drive and self-motivation; it completely undermines the achievements and abilities of the hard-working and truly gifted.”
Ms Akingbade is spot on. Harriet Harman’s diversity red-tape is anti-meritocratic and insulting. If the Lib Dems object to acting sooner, the Conservatives should make clear we would scrap the Regulations and section 159, if we form a government in May 2015.