UK: Gender Equality Roadmap Published

 

By Lucy Lewis © Lewis Silkin LLP July 19, 2019
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The United Kingdom (U.K.) Government Equalities Office has published a gender equality roadmap, which sets out proposed actions to tackle persistent inequities. This includes a number of potential changes to employment law.

Background

On 3 July, U.K. Minister for Women & Equalities Penny Mordaunt set out her vision for gender equality in the U.K. with the publication of the roadmap.

The stated aim is to financially empower women from school to retirement. The roadmap considers how inequality is faced at every stage of a woman's life and is intended to define and guide how to tackle the barriers women face.

This comes against the background of other measures looking at the treatment of women in the workplace, including:

  • The Women and Equalities Commission (WEC) report on sexual harassment in the workplace, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on sexual harassment at work, both of which expressed considerable concern about this issue and urged radical reform.
  • The government's consultation paper on options for preventing the misuse of confidentiality clauses, particularly in situations of workplace harassment and discrimination.
  • The government's consultation paper on extending redundancy protection for women who are pregnant or on maternity leave.

We are also awaiting developments following a government announcement that a new code of practice on sexual harassment at work would be developed by the EHRC, together with a consultation on the evidence for a new legal duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. An alliance of more than 20 unions, charities and women's rights organizations (using the hashtag #ThisIsNotWorking) recently launched a petition calling for a new law to make employers prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces.

Employment Law Changes

There are a number of proposals in the roadmap that may affect employment law:

  • Review of the shared parental leave and pay schemes. The government is conducting an evaluation of shared parental leave and pay, and the roadmap says that this will allow them to assess the effectiveness of the current policy and consider next steps on modernizing the existing system. They also intend to consult on increasing the transparency of organizations' parental leave and pay policies, although there is no explanation as to how this might be done. The roadmap celebrates employers who uplift shared parental pay beyond the statutory rate—and encourages all employers to do this when possible—but stops short of suggesting any change to the statutory rate of shared parental pay. This is currently lower than maternity pay for the first six weeks, and as established in a recent Court of Appeal decision, it is not sex discrimination to pay different rates of maternity and shared parental pay. It is also notable that the government itself does not currently equalize maternity and shared parental leave pay.
  • Consultation on dedicated employment rights for caregivers. This recognizes that women tend to provide most informal care for others and will include looking at caregiver's leave. Although no details are given, this may be a right similar to other types of family-related leave such as parental leave. The new EU Work-Life Balance Directive will introduce five days of unpaid caregiver's leave per year, but this would only provide a very limited right, and any proposals coming out of the consultation may go further than this.
  • A review of the enforcement of equal-pay legislation. Marking 50 years since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the government will review the enforcement of equal pay legislation to ensure it is working as effectively as possible. The government will consider the circumstances in which mandatory equal-pay audits could be appropriate. It is worth noting that employment tribunals already have the power to order an equal-pay audit if an employer is found to have breached the law, but this has been used very little in practice. This proposal may involve compulsory audits at an earlier stage in proceedings.
  • A consultation on workplace sexual-harassment-prevention legislation. This will include consulting on whether to extend the three-month time limit for employment tribunal claims after any incident of harassment or discrimination, which was something originally raised by the WEC in their report on workplace harassment. The roadmap also expresses support for the EHRC development of technical guidance on sexual harassment and harassment at work, which it says will be published later this year and form the basis of a statutory code of practice. However, there is no direct reference to a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment.
  • Strengthening and clarifying laws on third-party harassment. This is referenced in Mordaunt's statement as part of the wider consultation on sexual-harassment-prevention legislation but is not specifically included in the roadmap. The provision in the Equality Act of 2010, which required employers to protect their employees from harassment from third parties (such as clients and customers) was removed by the then conservative government in 2013 on the grounds that it was not necessary, so it will be interesting to see how this is positioned in the new consultation. Currently, there are no specific laws on third-party harassment, and an employer will only be liable if it has harassed or discriminated against the employee itself.

Many of the proposals in the roadmap arise from the reports and other developments summarized above. This new announcement suggests that the government is serious about improving women's equality, but we will have to wait to see how quickly matters progress. We are anticipating the EHRC's new guidance and code relatively soon.

Lucy Lewis is an attorney with Lewis Silkin LLP in Cardiff, U.K. © 2019 Lewis Silkin LLP. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission of Lexology.

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