Christina Patterson: The rights, wrongs and utter idiocies of equality and the law

The Saturday Column
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yesterday, the world became fairer. Forty years after the Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal (but not, alas, uncommon) for women to be paid less than men for the same kind of work – a law partly triggered by the struggle portrayed in this autumn's pick-me-up for the proletariat, Made in Dagenham – the Equality Act came into force.

As a member of that rare-as-a-hermaphrodite species, the senior female politician, and therefore also, of course, something called Minister for Women and Equality, Theresa May last week met four of the women involved in the struggle.

The Equality Act, she wrote yesterday, "marks another milestone in the journey towards equal pay". But we will, she said, "need to use many different levers to help close the pay gap". The levers, it turns out, aren't attached to some thrilling Heath Robinson contraption, in which men in cages are gently lowered to a more appropriate level, while women are hoisted up and into the comfy chairs they've just vacated. In fact, the levers are soon replaced by a plank: not a plank that naughty employers will have to walk, but a plank that makes the workplace "as flexible and family-friendly as possible". The first nail in that plank is, apparently, "the right to request flexible working for all". But not, presumably, the employer's evident right to say "no".

Still, it's clearly a good thing that the Coalition Government is taking a workmanlike, I mean workpersonlike, approach to equality in the workplace. It's a good thing that this includes making secrecy clauses unenforceable, so that women can find out if they're being paid less than their male colleagues. And it's a good thing that "protection from indirect discrimination to disability" will be extended, which I think means that you're not allowed to discriminate against an employee if they're the carer of someone who has a disability, though I'm not sure why you would, unless they weren't doing their job properly, or turning up to work, in which case I don't know why you'd call it discrimination.

On matters relating to "changing the definition of gender reassignment, by removing the requirement for medical supervision", I remain agnostic, though if you're insisting that your colleagues who have, for years, called you Nick, suddenly call you Nancy, and you're demanding girlie chats by the Tampax machine, I don't see why a little trip to the doctor would be such a big deal. And on matters relating to "clearer protection for breastfeeding mothers" I am, I must admit, baffled. Does this mean that women are allowed to sneak their babies into their desk drawer, and whip them out whenever they think they might be hungry? Or does it mean that every two or three hours, they nip home (a two-hour round journey for many of us) for a quick feed?

But there's one bit of the new legislation which just sounds (sorry, David) bananas. The Act will, apparently, "level up protection for people discriminated against because they are perceived to have, or are associated with someone who has, a protected characteristic". A "protected characteristic" does not mean an infectious giggle or the way your eyes crinkle when you smile. It means your gender, your race, your disability, your religion or even just your beliefs, and "levelling up protection" means that if you're offended by something that somebody says to somebody else, even if it's got nothing whatsoever to do with you, you can complain to your employer. And so, apparently, can any Tom, Dick or Nancy who might be wandering through the office. When I suggested to my boss, for example, that I write about the Equality Act, and he suggested that I follow up yesterday's story on female sexual dysfunction with a personal account of it, any female colleague who happened to overhear it could have run screaming to a lawyer. And he, poor man, would have to explain to some gimlet-eye tribunal that it was something that used to be known as a joke.

Some years ago, when I was running a small arts organisation, I was taken to tribunal by my stalker. To cut a long story short (which I've written about before), he was a very unstable man with a very big crush. Whenever he wanted to see me, he would buy tickets for the literary events I used to introduce and sit, staring in the front row. He sent me letters, begging me to marry him. He sent me pictures, of me as an angel and him as a frog. Years later, he applied for a job. When I didn't shortlist him, I got an official letter saying that I was being taken to tribunal on grounds of disability discrimination. The lawyer I took on told me that because he knew that I knew that he was mad as a hatter, he had a case. In the end, and after incurring big legal expenses which weren't reimbursed, we got off on the technical grounds that we had fewer than 15 employees (which wasn't actually true) and therefore were exempt from the legislation. That exemption no longer applies.

Of course we should try to make the workplace fairer. Of course we should try to help people with disabilities, and maybe even some people with peculiar beliefs, to get work. But at a time of a record deficit and of imminent large-scale unemployment, there's another "characteristic" we should also fight to protect. God knows what it's called nowadays, but it used to be called common sense.

Recessionary tips for a taste of luxury

"The good life," said Ed Miliband on Tuesday, "is about the things we do in our community, and the time we spend with family." Well, I suppose it can be, but there's a much quicker, easier, and even sometimes cheaper, way to get it: drinks in posh hotels. They don't frisk you. They don't means-test you. They don't even worry that you got your dress from H&M. They'll let anyone order a glass of house wine, for about the same price as you get in a pub, but usually much nicer, and they'll let you nurse it for hours, and they'll often bring you nibbles, which you don't have to pay for, and they'll often, when you've scoffed them, replace those nibbles. In my experience, which, not being of the new generation, is quite extensive, just sitting in a lovely Art Deco lounge, listening, perhaps, to the gentle tinkling of a piano, and being treated as if you're a movie star, even though you're only spending a fiver, is an excellent way for those of us in the "squeezed middle" to get a tiny taste of life at the top.

So, thank goodness that the Savoy, which understood, even without being told by Ed, "the need for change", is reopening next week. I'm a little bit worried that the new prices might reflect a refurbishment undertaken on a lavish Labour scale, but I'm trying, as Ed says, to be optimistic.

How history repeats itself (on Radio 4)

There's one thing this year that seems to have been going on for even longer than the search for a new Dalai Lama, I mean Labour leader: A History of the World in 100 Objects. Practically every time I switch on my radio, there's the weirdly New Age theme tune, which makes you think that you're about to hear some documentary about alien sightings or poltergeists, but which in fact is followed by a crisp voice giving us a little lecture on a Mughal miniature or a Javanese shadow puppet. The series, according to Neil MacGregor, who wrote and presents it, and is also the director of the British Museum, aims to show "how we humans over two million years have shaped our world and been shaped by it". No wonder it seems to be taking quite a while.

It is, however, wonderful: wonderfully English, wonderfully scholarly and wonderfully pitched at a nation that likes nothing more than ferreting through its attic in the hope of an appearance on Antiques Roadshow, and which likes its history, like pretty much everything else, in bite-sized chunks. We are, apparently, up to object 86. I can see that A History of the World in a Million Objects might have been a tricky sell, but life without it (but not without the portentous music) won't be quite the same.