Terence Blacker: We don't need a lesson in fairness from Harriet

Ms Harman's proposal is less an equality bill than a niceness bill

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It was the breastfeeding clause that tripped me up. Only the most heartless brute could oppose the idea of Harriet Harman's Equality Bill, even if it has sometimes seemed that New Labour introduces an Equality Bill every year or so, usually when things are getting rough on the political front.

Under this latest version, there will be a gender pay audit to force companies to reveal any discriminatory pattern in the way they pay men and women. Local health and education authorities, as well as development agencies, will be required to show that they are favouring deprived areas, parents and patients, when allocating resources. Employers will be encouraged to discriminate positively in order to establish a balanced work force. Discriminating by age "outside the workplace" will be banned, as will any form of discrimination within private clubs. Oh, and the bill will be "offering new mothers stronger protection when breastfeeding".

It is less an equality bill, than a general niceness bill. Any area suspected of what Harriet Harman describes as "old-fashioned prejudices" will be subject to legal scrutiny. In the way of ministers on the make, Harman claims that her policy is in line with the mood of the moment. "The whole issue of fairness has come centre stage," she says. "A big economic shock makes people ask a lot of questions. This is part of the answer, that everybody gets a fair chance, and the old prejudices are not just accepted."

Some might say that it takes a special brand of cheek to preach a sermon of fairness after what has happened under 12 years of New Labour rule. Harman complains of the super-rich and the "huge divisions" within society as if those divisions have not actually increased in recent years.

Another huge division exists. It is between the steaming muck-heap of warm words which accompanies these grandly ambitious pieces of legislative social engineering, and how they are enacted once they are enshrined in law. As anyone will know who has looked for work, the increasingly complex and punitive state of employment law has had many effects but fairness is not one of them. A prim, cover-your-back, safety-first culture is settling upon the work-place and upon government agencies. It sets apart, and above the rest of us, those who are good at understanding it, at dropping the right buzz-words in their reports, at finding their way through the arcane bureaucracy it has created, at appearing to do the right thing, of filling up the right forms, while not actually doing it.

Harriet Harman has denied that the Government will be encouraging employees to exercise positive discrimination on behalf of job applicants who are working class or who come from a deprived area. Why not? Surely that, too, is unfair. The scope for more busy form-filling is endless. Perhaps it will be included when the next equality bill comes round.


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