Campaigners see strategic advantages: Barrie Clement looks at the affair's implications for equal opportunites (CORRECTED)


CHAMPIONS of equal rights might have suffered a bloody and inconclusive result to the Battle of Alison Halford, but they have made some strategic advances in the war to win equal opportunities.

There is little doubt that Miss Halford's decision to abandon legal proceedings alleging discrimination and opt for early retirement on medical grounds is a short-term setback. The Equal Opportunities Commission has devoted countless hours of effort and about half its pounds 600,000 legal budget to the case, which began in 1990. Taxpayers may be forgiven for an inability to see the longer- term benefits to be derived from the affair - anything up to pounds 1.5m of their money has been spent by the organisations involved.

At least one of the commission's officials asked to be taken off the case, largely because of personal difficulties with Miss Halford. It seems that neither Miss Halford nor her erstwhile colleagues were easy people to deal with. Miss Halford showed much courage in taking legal action in the first place, but the humiliation she has endured during the proceedings may well act as a deterrent to any other woman who feels aggrieved. Given the revelations about police machismo at senior levels, some female high- flyers are going to look elsewhere for a career.

However, there are a number of reasons for believing that from the EOC's point of view, some good has come from one of the most bitter legal battles the commission has dealt with since its inception in 1975.

In general terms it has raised the profile of the commission, of sexual discrimination in high places and in the police specifically.

It has also underlined the commission's view that legal processes under the Sex Discrimination Act are cumbersome and unduly complex. A letter to be sent by Joanna Foster, chair of the commission, will increase pressure on Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, to streamline the whole business.

Since the case began two years ago, the number of complaints received from female police officers by the commission has increased fourfold. Claims specifically to do with discrimination over promotion have risen 30 per cent. A potentially adverse impact, however, will be that some senior policemen will think twice before promoting women to anything approaching a senior post for fear of another high-profile bout of bitter litigation. Such considerations were clearly not in mind this year when no less than six women were promoted to assistant chief constable - a job Miss Halford was the first woman to occupy.

The commission, however, is keen to emphasise the fact that as a direct consequence of the case, the promotional procedures of the police are to be reviewed. Most important from the EOC's point of view is that the commission will have an input into the working group that will undertake the inquiry. Valerie Amos, the commission's chief executive, pointed out yesterday that there had already been improvements to promotion systems because of the case and that equal opportunities policies have now been introduced into all forces.

For Miss Halford there is an uncertain future and a personal trauma to cope with. At least the out-of-court settlement has given her greater financial compensation than the pounds 10,000 she would have received if she had won the industrial tribunal case.

Ms Foster concludes that the case demonstrated, above all, 'how difficult it is when a culture is unfriendly to an individual who is different'. Miss Halford, says Ms Foster, was 'completely vindicated'.


In commenting, on 23 July, on the settlement of Alison Halford's discrimination case against the police, we said that one of the Equal Opportunities Commission's officials had asked to be taken off the case largely because of personal difficulties with Miss Halford. We regret that this statement, which was published as a result of a misunderstanding, was incorrect and apologise for any resulting embarrassment.