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The Government is to cut red tape to speed up equal pay hearings

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The Government is to cut red tape to speed up equal pay hearings, Employment Minister Tessa Jowell announced yesterday, with a consultation paper that marks the first strand of a five-part action plan to tackle the 18 per cent gender pay gap.

Addressing the Women’s National Commission Conference in London, Ms Jowell said, “If we are to make real progress on pay equality, we must streamline the system for dealing with equal pay claims. Today I am launching ‘Towards Equal Pay for Women’, a consultation paper that puts forward proposals to cut the delays, which make it harder for women to achieve pay parity and are bad for business and claimants.

“Speedier and simpler equal pay tribunals are vital if we are to achieve equality for women, who now make up almost half of Britain’s workforce. The gender pay gap has halved from 37 per cent when the Equal Pay Act was brought in thirty years ago to 18 per cent now, but it is still too high. Even without any breaks for children, a mid-skilled woman will still earn £240,000 less than a man over her working life.

“Last year nearly 2,500 equal pay complaints were made to employment tribunals. These cases can be very slow. Reaching a result can take years. The new proposals will ensure that equal pay cases are quicker, easier and fairer for everyone. We also want suggestions about how the Equal Pay Act can be streamlined, and how the handling of sex discrimination cases can be improved.

“This builds on the important work we’ve already done to ensure women can take full advantage of all employment opportunities. This includes improved careers advice, a focus on lifelong learning, the National Minimum Wage, the National Childcare Strategy, New Deals for Lone Parents and Partners, and the Work-Life Balance campaign.”

Ms Jowell said an important factor in the gender pay gap was the type of jobs women went into, sixty per cent of women worked in 10 lower-paid occupational groups, such as checkout operators, secretaries and child carers. Without these groups, the pay gap closed dramatically to just eight per cent.

Competitiveness Minister Alan Johnson said, “Tribunals follow special procedures in equal pay cases, and we are keen to streamline these to provide an efficient and fair service for users, and lighten the burden these cases impose on the tribunals themselves. Equal Pay Tribunal cases are among the slowest and most complex going through the Tribunal system. I am working closely with DfEE Ministers to help improve the process.”

Stephen Alambritis, Head of Parliamentary Affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said, “Equal pay claims can and should be resolved as speedily as possible in the best interests of both employers and claimants. Delays only drag out any unfairness at play, and the proposals are to be
welcomed.”

The proposals have been drawn up with comments from the Equal Opportunities Commission, leading lawyers and others concerned with equal pay issues. The consultation will gather wider views on the suggestions to ensure that they achieve the desired effect and are fair to both business and claimants.

Proposals include:

  • shortening and simplifying the rules on how tribunals deal with equal pay cases;
  • helping tribunals to decide cases more quickly by calling in an ‘assessor’ to give expert advice;
  • simplifying claims procedures where a group of women have
    essentially the same case;
  • cutting out the delays caused by lots of different experts giving evidence , just the independent expert appointed by the tribunal will give evidence;
  • removing a loophole which allowed tribunals to dismiss a claim before it was properly investigated; and
  • questionnaires for women to get key information from employers when deciding whether to bring a case.
The other elements of the action plan to tackle the gender pay gap – to be announced early next year – will look at
  • breaking down the gender stereotyping that sees many girls turn away from studying science and IT;
  • providing support for women returning to the labour market after having a family;
  • helping people balance their work and family life;
  • and raising skill levels and promoting lifelong learning.
The consultation paper also includes proposals to:
  • replace the two-year time limit on back pay in equal pay cases with a six-year time limit
  • allow tribunals to consider claims about sex discrimination taking place after a person has left a job but within 6 months of leaving
  • put in place changes to the Sex Discrimination Act required by the Burden of Proof Directive from Europe. These changes will broaden the definition of indirect discrimination and clarify where the balance of the burden of proof lies between an employer and employee.
The consultation document is available free by telephoning Prolog on 0845 602260 and giving reference EPCONSULT. It is also on the DfEE’s Website. Responses are sought by 19 February. The E-mail address is [email protected]

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