The Government Equalities Office (GEO), now sitting back within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) since November last year, has made some significant progress against the objectives set for it when the Coalition came to power in 2010.
The Government’s Mid-Term Review, published earlier this year, states that ‘over the years huge advances have been made in protecting people against discrimination…This Government is determined to continue that progress.’ Where the previous Labour government sought to legislate to bring in the major reforms that this document refers to, such as with the introduction of civil partnerships and The Equality Act, the Coalition has taken more of a ‘nudge’ approach. And though more than half of the pledges it made have been met, it is fair to say that they have not all been the most stretching of targets, with many promising merely to ‘promote’ greater equality in broad terms.
The great exception, of course, is a policy that did not even appear as a pledge in the Government’s original programme. The decision to legalise gay marriage through the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill has proved to be one of the most controversial steps taken by the Coalition. Despite David Cameron allowing his MPs a free vote in the House of Commons, the fact that more of his colleagues voted against the policy than voted for it demonstrated the strength of feeling the issue generates within the Conservative grassroots. With support from the other major parties however, the bill is likely to pass into law and will mean that this Government will be remembered for taking major steps on the equality agenda.
Elsewhere, the Government’s voluntary approach can be seen to be paying dividends, particularly on gender equality in major public companies. Indeed, following Lord Davies’ report in 2010, the proportion of women in directorships on FTSE 100 companies has risen from 10.5% to 17.3% over the last three years. Among FTSE 250 companies, the proportion has almost doubled to 13.2%. Nevertheless, the Coalition is still at some risk of failing to meet its 25% target by 2015. Business Secretary Vince Cable issued the following warning to companies in April this year: “Government continues to believe that a voluntary-led approach is the best way forward. But (we remind business) that quotas are still a real possibility if we do not meet the 25% target of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies by 2015.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will promote equal pay and take a range of measures to end discrimination in the workplace.
Status: In progress – The Government has included measures to allow Employment Tribunals to impose pay audits on employers as part of The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013. On a voluntary basis, companies representing one million UK employees have now signed up to the Government’s voluntary scheme ‘Think, Act, Report’ to promote equality in the workforce.
Pledge: We will extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, consulting with business on how best to do so.
Status: In progress - Following a consultation in 2011, the Government announced in November last year that the new provisions would be included in the Children and Families Bill 2012-13, so that workers would be given their new rights from 2014. The Bill is currently at Report stage in the House of Commons. A further consultation will be held this year on a new statutory code of practice to ensure that business handle requests for flexible working within a ‘reasonable time’, rather than in a ‘reasonable manner’, as before.
Pledge: We will undertake a fair pay review in the public sector to implement our proposed ‘20 times’ pay multiple.
Status: Done – The Government commissioned Will Hutton to conduct a fair pay review in the public sector in 2010. Hutton’s report was published in March 2011 and recommended, among other things, the regular publication of pay multiples by public companies on a top-to-median ratio. The Treasury’s 2013/14 Financial Reporting Manual has been updated to require non-departmental public bodies to publish this pay multiple data.
Pledge: We will look to promote gender equality on the boards of listed companies.
Status: Done – Having commissioned his report in 2010, the Government has supported the implementation of Lord Davies of Abersoch’s recommendations to double the percentage of women sitting on the boards of FTSE-100 and FTSE-250 companies by 2015. Lord Davies’ latest progress report, published on 10 April 2013, showed significant progress has been made but suggested the Government’s 2015 target may be narrowly missed.
Pledge: We will promote improved community relations and opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, including by providing internships for under–represented minorities in every Whitehall department and funding a targeted national enterprise mentoring scheme for BAME people who want to start a business.
Status: Done – The Whitehall Internship Programme was launched in 2011 to promote internships for graduates and students from minority and under-represented backgrounds. The Government launched the ‘Get Mentoring’ scheme in 2011. The programme has since supported 14,000 entrepreneurs from all backgrounds; 11% of these are drawn from BAME communities.
Pledge: We will stop the deportation of asylum seekers who have had to leave particular countries because their sexual orientation or gender identification puts them at proven risk of imprisonment, torture or execution.
Status: In progress - The UK Border Agency issued guidance, ‘Sexual Orientation in the Asylum Claim’, in 2011 to stop the deportation of asylum seekers who would be at risk, based on their sexual orientation, if they were returned to their home countries. However, the new regulations have been widely criticised and gay rights groups have claimed that deportations are continuing, with as many as 75% of claims made on these grounds rejected.
Pledge: We will use our relationships with other countries to push for unequivocal support for gay rights and for UK civil partnerships to be recognised internationally.
Status: Done – The Government has updated Schedule 20 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, which lists the overseas same-sex relationships that are treated as civil partnerships in the UK. The Government also claims to have raised its concerns about Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill at the most senior levels of its government.