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Levelling the playing fields

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When the government issues a 1,000-word press release with contributions from five ministers, it signals a big political campaign in progress.

The Equality Bill will loom large in the government’s final year before the general election, especially as Gordon Brown is presiding over an otherwise rather thin legislative programme.

With Labour talking openly about the need to help people on low incomes, and Conservatives complaining about class warfare, it could be quite like old times in politics.

Despite its name, one thing the Equality Bill will not do is make much difference to the quicksands in which councils and trade unions find themselves over backdated claims for equal pay.

Little in the bill affects this, according to both Unison and Local Government Employers, meaning that saga will grind on regardless.

The bill wholly or partly replaces nine previous pieces of legislation, consolidating equality legislation in one place.

Its new duty on public bodies to consider how spending and service decisions could reduce social and economic inequality applies only at a strategic level.

This means a council might be pulled up if its strategies failed to address inequality but not over a failure to meet every real or imagined individual grievance.

This has proved the bill’s most politically divisive provision. Community cohesion minster Sadiq Khan said: “Discrimination of any type should not be tolerated. The bill will aim to remove barriers of opportunity for the most vulnerable in our communities.”

While the Conservatives might not argue with that, their suspicions have been aroused by what they think is government pressure on councils to spend money in areas of low average incomes, which are more likely to vote Labour.

David Parsons (Con), chair of the Local Government Association improvement board, said: “It would be crass for councils to be required to do that by central government, which has to come clean about what it wants.

“They seem to be reverting to type and going back into class war, which I thought we’d moved on from 20 years ago, it is retrograde.”

He added that he hoped the Tories “consign [the bill] to the dustbin of history… Leave councils alone and they will do that if central government gets its great maulers off us.”

Westminster City Council leader Colin Barrow (Con) said public money would flow more efficiently to low income areas once spending by the Department for Work & Pensions was included in local strategic partnerships.

“The new duty sounds to me like political management, a Labour government wanting to spend money on its supporters,” he added.

But Sir Jeremy Beecham, leader of the LGA Labour group, welcomed the provision. “It may well raise expectations of what councils can do, but we have to raise expectations. You cannot freeze equalities because of a recession when local government as a whole did very little in the good times,” he said.

Liberal Democrat LGA group leader Richard Kemp questioned the need for more legislation. “There are very few councils not interested in equalities, and having a new law changes little,” he said. “This is just ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ — what the government should be doing is spreading best practice.”

Procurement may offer councils an effective route to improved equalities by, for example, requiring a contractor to train women in construction crafts.

The consultation promised this summer meant that the bill was light on specifics. But a newly published study on equalities and procurement by the LGA, Improvement & Development Agency, Equality & Human Rights Commission and the Society of Procurement Officers pointed to plenty of scope.

It found only 33% of procurement officers said their council had a policy on supplier diversity, and that equalities offi cers were rarely involved in either framing pre-qualification documents or in monitoring tenders.

Liane Venner, head of member participation at Unison and its lead officer on the bill, said: “Councils should use procurement for equalities. It does not conflict with best value, as taking the cheapest bid does not necessarily offer best value for a community if jobs are lost or only low paid.”

At the bill’s launch, Mr Khan said the recession made it “more crucial than ever to have safeguards in place to protect our communities”.

Despite the political conflict, the bill’s mere existence may fulfil one government aim — to remind public and private sector employers that even during a downturn equality is not an optional extra.

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