Equality Bill

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Q 124Sandra Osborne: Will you expand a bit on the idea of representative actions? What benefits could that bring, for example, to the recent single-status negotiations of local authorities? Many women found it difficult, especially if they were not represented by their trade union. Would such action have helped in that situation, for example?
Katherine Rake: Yes, certainly. It allows two things. First, other organisations might take a case on behalf of the women if they were not able to take a case themselves. It also allows women to stand together much more effectively so that if the matter was not unionised, a group of women could come together and either represent themselves or be represented by an external body. If such a provision were included, it could be incredibly powerful.
Joyce Gould: As I understand it, some work has already been looked at to see whether representative action could now be built in for some low-level cases. That would be very helpful.
Q 125Lynne Featherstone: Not long ago, Nicola Brewer of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that employers were rejecting women and not even inviting them to interviews because of maternity benefits. It is a sort of discrimination before people even get to work. For all the reasons that we have just discussed about women having a hard time in work, they are having a hard time getting into work. Do you think that there is any room in the Bill for measures that would reduce pre-work barriers?
Katherine Rake: One of the things in the Bill that we are concerned about is the fact that it is a step back in pregnancy discrimination. Under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, there is simply a provision to ensure that pregnant women are not treated less favourably than anyone else, but according to the Bill there is a reference to being treated less favourably than is reasonable. We are strongly advocating that the “than is reasonable” provision be removed because it is in contravention of European Community directives and the Sex Discrimination Act. We hope that that is a drafting error, rather than a deliberate act.
If that “reasonable” clause is removed, we will have some strong legislative protection against pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination. The problem is a cultural one really, which is where Government leadership is so critical in reminding people of the loss of skills and the loss to the economy that would happen if we did not offer pregnant women and those on maternity leave proper protection.
Clearly, you cannot dissociate women’s rights in employment from mothers’ rights in employment—most women at some point become mothers. Even those who do not become mothers tend to be grouped in the same bracket—
Lynne Featherstone: It is discrimination against young women.
Katherine Rake: Exactly. It is basically discrimination against women, so it is important that the Government send a strong signal, both that they will remove the reasonableness test that appears to have crept in and that they will not, culturally, tolerate that sort of discrimination, even in difficult times.
Joyce Gould: Briefly, the Women’s National Commission has also discussed the question particularly about pregnancy—people not being employed because they are pregnant or might be pregnant, which is quite intolerable and not to be accepted. I am delighted that people are writing to the Minister to say that it is not something that should happen.
On the question of the “reasonable” clause, the Women’s National Commission held a roundtable—last week, I think—when the issue was raised. Obviously, we shall be asking the Government to look again at “reasonable”.
Emma Stewart: I add more positive messages to highlight the loss to business of an untapped talent pool that otherwise could be utilised and contribute hugely to the economy. That is clearly something for positive measures and initiatives outside the Bill that we would endorse.
The Chairman: No other questions? I am so pleased that I have not had to cut anyone off in their prime.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Barbara Keeley.)
5.56 pm
Adjourned till Tuesday 9 June at half-past Ten o’clock.
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