Why we need an equalities regulator for Scotland

31 10 2014

Following the referendum on independence for Scotland and the last minute vow by the leaders of the three major parties in Westminster to devolve further powers to Holyrood, the Smith Commission has been established look at what additional powers might be granted.

While I have had an input via organisations to which I belong or am affiliated to, this is my personal submission… not that I really expect that any of them will either be read or acted upon.

Earlier this year I attended a major conference sponsored by the Scottish Government; Women on Board, Quality through Diversity, which sought to identify areas of inequality in public sector boards. In short, while women make up 52% of the Scottish population and the majority of University graduates are women, there is still significant gender inequality on public boards, with women making up only 36% of board places and holding just 21% of board chairs. At Holyrood itself, women make up only 36% of MSP’s and fewer than 25% of local councillors are women.

Since the power to legislate on discrimination and equality is reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Parliament does not have legislative powers to address this issue. The Scottish parliament cannot introduce, for example, quotas as the ability to do so is reserved under the provision on political parties in the Scotland Act.

Neither could quotas for membership of private sector boards be introduced as this would mean changes to companies law, which is also reserved.

Currently the Scotland Committee of The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is the equalities regulator in Scotland but it is not accountable to the Scottish Government or Parliament.

So, in order to properly address the issue of equality, powers to legislate to improve gender equality must be devolved to Holyrood.

This change will allow parliament to introduce measures such as quotas. With the pace of change slowing following the Davies Report it will be decades before the current guidelines for board representation return anything like parity. The introduction of quotas may be a necessary, albeit temporary measure, to bring about change more quickly.

Scotland needs an equality regulator to replace the Scotland committee of the EHRC and to work alongside the Scottish Human Rights commission.

But this is not enough in and if itself.

Inequality cannot be addressed solely by changes to a statutory body or committee. Structural inequalities exist throughout society and cut across many government departments.

For almost 40 years the Equal Pay Act has enshrined a statutory obligation to provide equal pay, yet the gender pay gap persists and reports published earlier this week indicates that it is in fact now growing. Devolving powers will give Holyrood the power to conduct mandatory pay audits and to ensure that the provisions of the Equal Pay Act are adhered to.

Currently employment law, including the power to determine statutory maternity, paternity and parental leave and pay is reserved to Westminster. The provision of maternity leave, maternity pay and assurances about a return to the workforce without detriment to career progression are vital if women are to make full impact in the workplace. The power to be able to legislate in this area needs to be devolved in order to address employment and employability inequality.

Finally, there are considerably more women than men on the lowest incomes; 92% of lone parents are women and women make up 95% of lone parents dependent on Income Support. Currently the provision of social security, and decisions affecting welfare payments, are reserved to Westminster. The parties that make up the UK government and the opposition support the ongoing raft of welfare reforms while the Scottish Government, supported by the Scottish Parliament, has already demonstrated a willingness to mitigate the worst impacts of welfare reform. It isn’t likely that the UK political parties will change their stance with regard to welfare reform in advance of the 2015 general election or beyond, which leaves the Parliament in Scotland completely at odds with Westminster and constantly working to minimise the impact, both gendered and otherwise, of changes to the welfare system.

There are clear inter-dependencies between the welfare system, employment, employability and gender equality such that women’s rights can only be truly protected if the powers to legislate on equalities, employment law, benefits and taxation systems are transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

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