Christina Patterson: Equal opportunities? That's so public sector

As always, the Government has caved in. We didn't mean you. This is just for the kids
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The Independent Online

A few years ago, I was taken to tribunal by my stalker. I'd first met him some years before. Whenever he wanted to see me, he would just buy a ticket for one of the literary events I used to run, and sit in the front row and stare. He would send me poems in the post and, once, a picture he'd painted, of me as an angel and him as a frog. He wrote me letters, begging me to marry him, and when I declined turned nasty. He hoped, he said, in messages on my answerphone, that my babies (what babies?) would die of acid poisoning.

Some years later, I heard from him again. He should, he said, be running the organisation of which I was a director, or perhaps the Foreign Office, but would settle for the post of administrative assistant I'd just advertised. Weeks later, when the interviews had been completed and the 83 unsuccessful candidates had been informed, I got a letter from the regional secretary for Employment Tribunals. I was, he told me, being taken to tribunal on grounds of disability discrimination. The man had schizophrenia and I should get myself a lawyer. I nearly laughed, but it wasn't a joke. Months later, when the case finally ended – we got off on a legal technicality – I still didn't laugh. I cried, in fact, with relief.

It couldn't happen to me now. It couldn't happen to me now not just because I don't employ anyone to do anything – except to fill white space on these pages at a moment's notice – but because I no longer work in the public sector. Employing people in the public sector is a bit like landing as a bearded Muslim with a rucksack at an American airport. Trust me, all the Is will be dotted and the Ts will be crossed. Proper procedure will be followed, and stretched out. There will be questions and forms and perhaps, for good measure, a strip-search. No one's going to take any chances.

In the private sector, however, the world of banks and law firms and shops, and, yes, newspapers, you can do pretty much what you like. Get friends and relatives' children in on work experience and then, when a job pops up, on the payroll. Ring up your mates. A quick chat, a quick lunch and you're sorted. None of this tedious advertising, or shortlisting, or tick boxes, or lawsuits from nutters. You don't have to pander to PC Plod (or whatever you want to call the PC police) or to anyone else. If you do advertise, as the owner of a hair salon in King's Cross discovered recently, it's like volunteering for The F Word. On your (uncovered or covered, it's your call, even if you're applying for a job in a hair salon) head be it.

But you don't have to. The law's the law, but the law, in employment, is a viper's nest you choose to crawl into. Which is why Harriet Harman's idea to bring sweetness, light, gender and ethnic equality and peace on earth to the workplace is absolutely lovely – and will probably make no difference at all.

The White Paper she produced this week paved the way for legislation that will require employers to reveal the salary gap between male and female staff, and to favour women or candidates from ethnic minorities in job interviews over equally qualified white men. Fantastic! We'll be like Norway. Lots of women, like Margaret from The Apprentice, sitting on boards. Or like Spain. Lots of women, like that sexy young defence minister, in the Cabinet. Time, perhaps, for some new clothes.

Except that, as always, the plans are just for the public sector. The 70 per cent of the employment world known as "the private sector", the people this Government has been pursuing and wooing and, let's face it, bribing from its rosy-fingered (and rosy-cheeked) dawn right through to its cadaverous, BNP-beaten death throes – the people, incidentally, who now hate it as much as everyone else – have said that it would all be a bit of a bother. And so, as always, the Government has caved in. We didn't mean you, obviously. Gosh, we wouldn't dream of bossing you about. No, this is just for the kids.

So the big boys continue to strut around and stamp their feet and make serious money, while in the kindergarten of the public sector, sweet Mrs Singh, and her classroom assistants, Precious and Fatima, make sure that everyone plays nicely and that when the school inspector comes, the classroom is tidy and there are lots of lovely pictures on the walls. As if Mrs Singh's kindergarten were a window on a whole world of multicultural harmony, like a Benetton ad, or even, according to a senior BBC board member, like television.

"I think we can all agree," said Samir Shah this week, "that there is no shortage of black and Asian reporters and presenters around these days", to the point, he said, where ethnic minority viewers were "slightly embarrassed". Behind the scenes, of course, it's business ("hideously white" business, to use Greg Dyke's phrase) as usual.

Our approach to equal opportunities in this country appears to be lifted from the private sector. From Starbucks, in fact. Would you like cinnamon on your dark mocha frappucino? A dash of disability awareness? A touch of tokenism? Just an espresso? Of course, sir, that will be fine.