Public sector buying

The Equality Act imposed certain duties on the public sector; these are often referred to as the PSED – or Public Sector Equality Duties. There are two types of Duties:

  • the General Duty which applies to all public bodies; and
  • Specific Duties which apply to some public bodies

The essence of the new PSED is to embed equality practice into the framework of the public body. That equality and diversity is no longer an adjunct or specialism that is somehow tagged on at the end of a project, but an issue that is part of the normal consideration in any project and understood by all those involved.

Sounds simple, and indeed the EHRC have produced good quality advice and guidance which should help.

The problem is one of action. From 2011 Public Bodies are meant to have included equality and diversity conditions in the tender process from where appropriate. But any cursory glance through the OJEC Buying Journals will show that there is not much evidence of it having been implemented at all by the main departments.

Now it might sound strange but this does business no favours. Many businesses are ahead of the game. They have taken the issue seriously reviewed their processes, trained their staff and even imposed equality and diversity requirements through their supply chain. They should be in a good position, indeed a favourable one, when it comes to bidding for public sector work. But that investment and that good practice is wasted if the public sector does not fulfil their own obligations.

Passing legislation that provides a clear indication of what is necessary is to be applauded but Ministers waste private sector time and money if they then fail in their own obligations. It seems disingenuous to maintain the line that business needs to be competitive and grow, while allowing the public sector to fail in its duties and put responsible businesses at a disadvantage.


Changes in the EU

While the UK argues about the worth of equality and diversity and how business should cope with the demands made on them, Europe has been forging ahead with creating a level playing field.

Much of the equality and diversity legislation in place in the UK stems from the EU. It therefore follows that the UK is not isolated and not disadvantaged by equality legislation because every member, and every potential member, of the EU has to follow the same basic legislation.

How each member implements that legislation does, of course, differ. Perhaps more significantly it is also about how each member enforces it.

Now the national press, politicians and many business advisers have said that some countries are simply not implementing or enforcing that legislation, particularly in terms of disability where there are costs involved. It is just lip-service which benefits those members in competition terms. It therefore follows that, to remain competitive, we should water down our legislation and remove some people’s rights.

Well the EU have agreed on the first point, but disagreed on the second. To correct the situation the EU want to pass a new Accessibility Act that levels the playing field in terms of access for disabled people. That is to be welcomed because it starts the debate about what we mean by access. All too often it is just taken as physical access – the ramp outside a shop or hearing symbol at a bank counter. Well it is far more than that – it is about product design, service design and intellectual access.

If we all develop a common understanding and a more level approach, then that is to be welcomed. It gives business security in how to accommodate certain issues but it also means that commonality is EU wide which levels the playing field. That benefits the UK, and indeed gives us a competitive advantage, as so many businesses have already embraced the issue.

Age and employment

Age is an emotive subject, it is personal to us all and we all feel differently about what it is and what it means. Some people long to be young again, some find fulfilment in work and others look forward to retirement to have time to do what they want to do and not be driven by the employment clock.

However, much of the recent legislative developments have focussed on later life. That undoubtedly has to do with an aging population with better prospects of enjoying a longer life and the pressures that puts on pensions and the provisions we have made for our eventual retirement. The scrapping of the default retirement age has certainly allowed older employees to continue in work which helps financially, but that freedom comes at a price at the other end of the age scale.

Working longer may be something that we will all benefit from, but in a static or even shrinking job market it means younger people can’t get on the first rung on the employment ladder. It is those same young people on whom we will also rely to provide the tax revenues to pay for the state and public sector pensions.

The market will correct itself over time but there needs to be a balance.

Age equality legislation is about discrimination based on age but it is perhaps less important when striking that balance. That balance needs to be struck in terms of life chances. When you can’t get on the first rung of employment because of the economic climate and a change in how we perceive equality then employers should not discriminate because of the lack of experience or of previous employment. That is the balance that needs to be made…an equal chance.

Government by sticking plaster

I have never been a huge fan of opinion polls but this government seems to think a continual barrage of consultation is a good idea. Now consultation has its place, and people’s opinions do matter, but in terms of government it is usually a good idea to consult before you start the legislative process, not after.

The Red Tape Challenge is the flagship initiative meant to give people a say on a huge number of regulations. But like all consultations it has its flaws. It can only be as good as the people that take part. In any consultation process you usually find a very low level of public awareness, except for the interested groups, and that means only those with strong opinions take part which skews the results. A continual barrage of consultations doesn’t do much to help either, it just desensitises people – “numbs down” the process as it were.

Even worse, with no feedback or further consultations on what has been discovered as a result of all that consultation process and with Ministers popping up everywhere announcing the next abolition of some regulation or removal or rights, how are you meant to understand how they arrived at that decision. Inevitably it is always based on some report or another which supports their opinion, but that report wasn’t part of the consultation.

Does all this frantic action get to the root of the problem ….no…it just highlights how badly legislation was drafted in the first place, how all those debates in parliament failed to spot those mistakes and how often politicians draft legislation as a knee-jerk reaction – a quick fix to some problem that has hit the headlines. And just to add to that heady mix how many politicians and their departments get involved in one area or topic simply creating a spiders-web of regulations with no real central direction or objective.

In a sense the Red Tape Challenge exposes those problems, but the Challenge does not help redress them. A popularity poll is no way to consider equality or employment issues. It’s not about what business thinks and is prepared to implement, it is about making opportunities open to everyone – life chances is the sexy in phrase. As some of the businesses are the cause of some of the problems, it’s a bit rich to determine policy based on their opinions only.

And that is where parliament comes in – it is meant to balance things out – consider the problem holistically, taking everything into account, and then if necessary, and only then, to frame the legislation, debate it and then pass it. So perhaps its time for parliament to step up to the plate – if the legislation is wrong, by all means consider it, but do it properly, no more quick fixes and off the cuff solutions.

Equality at last – well in Sheffield at least

I have always found it a little rich that the government, and the regulators, when they talk about equal pay seem to target the private sector as the worst offender. On Wednesday 14 September Theresa May, the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities launched the new voluntary approach to improving transparency on pay and other gender equality issues. And who was the scheme aimed at? The private sector and the first to sign up Tesco, BT, National Grid, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and law firm Eversheds.

Yet somehow, this new scheme simply underscores the view that the private sector is the villain. Yet when you read the newspapers you find that the worst offenders, just by the sheer size of their workforce are in fact the local authorities.

The latest in a long line of pay discrimination, and one that is now being settled out of court after considerable expense, is Sheffield Council. The argument advanced by Sheffield Council was simple that men working as street cleaners and gardeners were paid between 33% and 38% more than those for women working in jobs that even they agreed were comparable because that difference was caused by historical productivity bonuses. It was not gender related discrimination – oh no – it was just about productivity – as related to male jobs.

That sounds so convincing.

So sanity prevails and the end of the road for a long running dispute and one that will have an impact on thousands of other local authority workers. But let’s be clear about the lesson. The cause may be rooted in history but the problem was the current Council’s attitude. Yes pay disparity exists but that is why you need to be crystal clear about the reason and why regular pay audits guard against pay discrimination. Local authorities have been carrying out pay audits since the late 1970s and the Equality Standard for Local Government has been around since 2001 all of which cover gender and pay and those didn’t seem to help. So remember it is not the fact that you carry out pay audit that is important, it is about what you do when you discover the discrepancy and for the workers affected that is important because not only were they entitled to equal pay, but that missed pay also affects their pensions. So perhaps it’s time for the government to get it’s own house in order and lead by example.

Oh and by the way…well done Tesco, BT, National Grid, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and law firm Eversheds and all the others for stepping up to the plate and for those private sector equality scheme providers who also cover the issue.

How competent are your staff?

One of the buzzwords always used by HR is competency. Now many people think that is about making sure that employees are properly skilled, that they can actually do the work you want them to. Well it can be, but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Competency is about how you want people to behave. It is about personal attributes or what you want them to learn to make them more efficient and perform to a higher level. And those skill sets come in all different shapes and sizes. It can be technical skills that make them operate systems better or it can be attitudes which can make for better customer focus but most centre on the job, not the person.

But how about those core competencies that talks to the person and their behaviour. One of the basics is not to drive your customers away by their attitude but about your employees building your reputation and sales. Pretty obvious really, but so many business just fail to recognise it.

If you look at your own organisation’s competence framework there will be a set of core behaviours and skills, common to all roles in your organisation. They are intended to be the very core of your organisational culture. But how many of them cover the practical application of equality and diversity. It is all very well knowing you have a policy – it is also good to know that discrimination is something you should avoid – but how many staff have actually been told how to apply those policies in practical work situations?.

It’s about how the stuff which gets done in your organisation should be done with an eye on inclusion. It’s about embedding those core skills and a better understanding of how to avoid discrimination within every employee and teaching everyone those essential skills for the future.

So just how difficult is it for disabled people to find work?

There has been much said about moving disabled people back into work and if words counted for anything then there would be no problems. However, words are just that, statements of intent, what you want to happen but how that translates on the ground is what really counts.

The reform of the benefit system, together with the new assessments for claiming disability allowances are meant to provide the impetus to make some disabled people hunt for work. Now I won’t go on about an assessment system run by a French IT company, ATOS, which fails to provide the most basic disabled access at its assessment centres as this is only one-side of the coin. But the other side is of course businesses themselves, those people who recruit. New research published by the Department of Work and Pensions shows that everything is not all that rosy in this area either. The research looked at the recruitment practices of employers in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) as they related to disabled people.

Why that research is important is because SMEs are the political nirvana, the sector where the government expect employment growth to come from and, in truth, the business sector where 60% of private sector jobs already exist. So what did the research find?

Well the ideal employee is someone who “could do the job” and successful candidates were chosen on the employers’ perception of their ability to work flexibly and adapt to different roles; competence; reliability; stability in their private life; employment history; proximity to work; work ethic; personality; and honesty. However, the main uncertainties employers had around employing disabled people concerned their perception of the (un)suitability of the built environment, risks to productivity, negative impact on staff from any loss to productivity and the risk of harm to the disabled person, staff and/or customers.

So there is a disjoint here; what the government wants to happen, what employers say they want and what they actually do is a different thing.

The aim must be to allow disabled people the same chances, the same opportunities and the same ability to screw up just like the rest of us. Using an equality scheme that builds from the bottom up, changing attitudes and provides businesses and their employees with the skills and confidence to understand and apply practical solutions to inclusion in the workplace is the start. But the outcome is a more engaged and flexible workforce which connects with your customers, some of whom will be disabled – a plus for any business in the time of recession.

United Kingdom Council for Access and Equality

The United Kingdom Council for Access and Equality (UKCAE) was set up from within the private sector to help build inclusive organisations.

UKCAE is a not-for-profit membership body and business is conducted on its behalf by the Chair and a Governing Body of Directors, each of whom is nominated from a company, Trade Association or public sector organisation and includes representatives from the Council of Reference.

The Council of Reference, comprising charities, not-for-profit organisations and individuals, is the main consultative body for the Governing Body, actively included in the development of the Pathway and advising on issues relating to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Contact UKCAE

Tel: 0207 368 6969