Civitas Institute for the Study of Civil Society

25 November 2011

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Equality law's billion pound paper-shuffle


'Equalities industry' undermines true equality


As youth unemployment rises to record levels, a new Civitas report reveals that British workplaces spend up to a billion pounds a year complying with clumsy equality legislation. The costs put particular strain on public sector organisations, as well as making it more difficult for businesses to create and retain jobs. Furthermore, these policies have made jobs less accessible to disadvantaged, marginal workers.


The Rise of the Equalities Industry, by sociology professor Peter Saunders, examines the operation of Britain's equality laws and concludes that they are seriously flawed. The associated costs of equalities monitoring amount each year to an estimated:


  • £150 million in the service sector
  • £35 million in manufacturing
  • £25 million in construction
  • £210 million across small and medium-sized businesses
  • Between £300 million and £400 million across the whole private sector [pp. 86-87]

A large proportion of these costs are associated with mindless data collection. They have no obvious value for improving outcomes for the disadvantaged and can weigh especially heavily on public sector organisations. Examining DEFRA, as a typical government department, Saunders finds:


At the end of 2010, it was employing 2,570 core staff in its central London office (plus another 6,910 elsewhere). It has its own diversity team in London which in 2009-10 employed 4.5 staff at a cost of £231,000. This team's work seems mainly to consist of researching the social make-up of DEFRA staff. [p. 81]

Statistical utopia


Originally established to underpin equality before the law, equality legislation today is perversely undermining that very principle of fair treatment. This is in pursuit of a false utopia of absolute equality for all. But this pursuit will remain completely unrealistic while free people are able to take different decisions, have different aims in life and, inevitably, experience different outcomes. Greater equality of condition can only be achieved with less diversity.


Advocates for the equalities industry justify the extra burdens on the public sector and businesses on the grounds that they are designed to combat discrimination in work and society. The TUC claims that discrimination against female workers costs the economy £11 billion a year, while the National Audit Office argues that discrimination against ethnic minorities costs £8.6 billion. [p. 73]


The problem with these figures is that they assume, rather than show, that differences in labour market outcomes are due to discrimination. In essence, every statistical deviation from the population average in an organisation is taken as evidence of prejudice. Instead, they are often due to the choices and priorities of employees of different genders and cultural backgrounds:


The only way to generate the 'savings' of £15 to £23 billion that the Equalities Strategy refers to would be to force millions of women to do science rather than arts degrees, to take private sector rather than public sector jobs, to work as software engineers and architects, rather than as teachers and vets, and to put their children in nurseries and crèches even if they prefer to spend time with them at home. [p. 75]

This means that tackling what is assumed to be discrimination is unlikely, in practice, to realise any of the speculated gains. A more viable strategy would mean ensuring everyone has the potential to choose their own priorities in life, rather than trying to force everyone down a predetermined path to a government-mandated 'outcome'.


Some more equal than others


The equalities industry is also selective in its focus on statistical deviations. When the difference shows a poorer outcome for a minority group, discrimination is the first assumption. When the outcome favours a minority group, it is ignored:


... gay men and lesbians tend to earn more than heterosexual men and women. Gay men also tend to cluster in particular kinds of occupations, just as women do, but in the case of gays, this clustering is never seen as a 'problem' by equalities campaigners. [pp. 119-120]

That gay men and women earn more, on average, than heterosexuals, is hardly evidence of discrimination against heterosexuals in the workplace. All it indicates is that different personal characteristics are associated with different labour market outcomes. There is no need to assume unfairness. However, this does demonstrate some unfairness on the part of the equalities industry. It means that their concerns over differential outcomes are not broadly applied to every group characteristic, but focus arbitrarily on some pre-selected groups.


This differential treatment was recently demonstrated when councils on the islands of Lewis, Harris and North Uist were reported to have been advised that their leisure centres should be opened on Sundays. [p.1] This was against the wishes and traditions of the local Christian Gaelic-speaking inhabitants, themselves a minority group.


Less free, less fair


Ultimately, 'equality' is being redesigned from something in which everyone can expect to share, to a scarce resource that will only be available to groups that are selected to have their voices heard in policy circles. Different rules will apply to different people depending arbitrarily on their group characteristics and affiliations. Saunders warns that this zero-sum approach to egalitarianism will make Britain less free and less fair:


Despite the rhetoric, modern equalities discourse is not neutral. It is tied to a wider and deeper political agenda... If this agenda is not opposed with a clearly-articulated, alternative conception of fairness rooted in the liberal tradition of equal treatment under a single set of rules, then liberalism itself will eventually crumble and fade away. [p. 146]

For more information contact:


Civitas on 020 7799 6677


Notes for Editors


i. The Rise of the Equalities Industry by Peter Saunders is available from the Civitas shop (RRP: £9.00) and by calling 020 7799 6677.


ii. Peter Saunders is a Civitas Professorial Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Sussex. For further information about the author see: www.petersaunders.org.uk


iii. Civitas is an independent social policy think tank. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding.