Employers prepare to ditch equal opportunities at work

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The Independent Online
A confidential report by senior CBI officials suggests that the employers' organisation is preparing to abandon support for equal opportunities for women and the ethnic minorities. Other disadvantaged groups - the disabled, long-term unemployed, the over-50s and ex-offenders - would also be sacrificed.

The paper argues that rising unemployment has reduced the need for employers to concern themselves with getting previously under-represented groups into the labour force and improving their levels of skill. Unemployment is unlikely to fall below 2.5 million during the 1990s, it says.

'Clearly some of the business arguments for accessing and advancing previously excluded groups and for increasing training become less relevant,' says the paper, which has been distributed to members of the CBI's employment policy committee.

The CBI's present policy is based on a report drawn up in 1989. It said that intense competition for labour would force employers to pay more attention to the under-used potential in disadvantaged groups. Now, the confidential document, 'Economic Growth and the Prospects for Employment', concludes that the 'demographic timebomb' which was expected to lead to a shortage of young people in the labour market, has been 'defused'. The labour market will probably be 'much slacker' than expected.

It warns that 'social and political pressures on government can be expected to grow if the prospect of 2.5m unemployed (many of them long term) through the rest of the century is accompanied by evidence of the continued exclusion from full participation in the labour market of many citizens'.

Disclosure of the document - which a spokeswoman said was consultative - will lead to considerable embarrassment at the CBI which promotes itself as an equal opportunities employer. The confederation is one of the main supporters of Opportunity 2000 which seeks to ensure that women are represented at all levels in companies.

A spokeswoman for the Equal Opportunities Commission said industry should remain aware of the needs and abilities of women. 'After all they make up 44 per cent of the workforce - more than 12 million people.' Critics may also consider the CBI report indifferent to the plight of the ethnic minorities, which suffer the highest rates of unemployment especially in the inner-cities.

The disclosure comes as the Government steels itself for this week's announcement that unemployment has passed three million. Behind the scenes, ministers are finalising details of a new programme of cash grants to ease the long-term unemployed back into jobs. It will be included in a package of employment measures to be announced by the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, next month at the same time as the Budget.

The package will also include benefit rule changes to allow jobless people to go on courses and do voluntary work, and an expansion of the Business Start-Up Scheme which now helps 30,000 people a year to start small businesses.

The changes in benefit rules are particularly significant. At present jobless people are precluded from taking full-time futher education courses or unpaid jobs in the voluntary sector because they do not then conform with the rigid 'available for work' criteria laid down by the Departments of Employment and Social Security.

The changes could eventually lead to a form of 'workfare' - a requirement to do useful work in return for benefit. But there will be no element of compulsion in the Chancellor's package and Whitehall sources stressed that ministers had made no decisions on 'workfare' programmes.

A 'back to work' bonus scheme foreshadowed in the Tory manifesto has been brought forward to boost next month's package. Directed particularly at inner-city residents without a job for more than six months, it will give them pounds 100 to pounds 150 for new clothes, some tools where necessary, and cash to cover the gap before their first pay cheque.

The CBI paper predicts that the jobless figures will rise to 3.1 million by the middle of this year, possibly levelling out at around 3.2 million in 1994. These pessimistic predictions have been confirmed by the Institute of Employment Research at Warwick, which also advises the Department of Employment.