The Equality and Human Rights Commission gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee yesterday about the impact of COVID-19 on its agenda, from gender pay gap reporting and equality impact assessments to pregnancy and maternity discrimination.
Equality issues are not sufficiently covered by Government guidance on return to work, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The call came at a Women and Equalities Committee session yesterday amid concerns about whether pregnancy and maternity discrimination around redundancy and a whole range of factors relating to equalities will worsen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The EHRC also said the Government should publish an equality impact assessment relating to COVID-19 in order to show that it is complying with its duties over equalities. Equality impact assessments ensure that Government policies, services and legislation do not discriminate against anyone and that, where possible, the Government promotes equality of opportunity.
Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, had argued at an earlier session that publication of an equality impact assessment would stop people coming forward to report on equalities concerns.
The EHRC has encouraged the government to share the assessment, although it says there is no legal obligation in England for it to publish. The law in Scotland and Wales is different, but relates only to local authorities there.
Melanie Field said that the Government does, however, need to show that it is acting in accordance with its public sector equality duty and publishing the impact assessment “would be a good way to do that”.
Asked if the EHRC might bring a challenge in this respect, Field said the EHRC is considering a whole range of approaches relating to different departments to ensure the duty had been complied with.
Other issues brought up during the discussion related to whether BAME workers should be shielded, whether there was discrimination in their access to treatment and PPE, potential unconscious bias in tracing apps, education, food access and concerns about people with learning difficulties being asked to sign do not resuscitate letters without appropriate support.
Pregnancy and maternity discrimination was discussed, for instance, pregnant women being made to take unpaid leave or sick leave rather than be furloughed, inadequate health and safety risk assessments and pregnant women not being suspended on full pay if they could not work safely or be redeployed.
Field said that some employers had not understood the guidance, but there was likely to be some discrimination involved too.
She called for the Government to routinely report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination and said the EHRC wanted to repeat its 2016 report on pregnancy and maternity discrimination. It has published guidance on this issue following the COVID-19 outbreak and has been talking to employers about it.
Field said that when it came to redundancies, equality duties needed to be “front of mind” for employers as discrimination was likely to rise at times of crisis. Also mentioned were concerns about people being put at a disadvantage with regard to the furlough and self employment income protection scheme if they had been on parental leave in the lead-up to the pandemic.
Field was asked about the decision to cancel this year’s gender pay gap reporting and why it had not been postponed instead. “It became apparent very quickly that making employers think they needed to focus on their publishing gender pay gap information was not helpful,” said Field. She said the EHRC and Government had jointly concluded, because they didn’t know what was going to happen over the next months, that this year’s gender pay reporting would merge into the next reporting period. It was therefore decided to suggest a clean break. She added that the EHRC was still encouraging employers to publish their information if they can. Over 70% of public sector organisations have and around 45% of private sector organisations have.
Field was asked if the data could have helped to assess the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality. Field said data was still available through other sources, although it was not on an individual organisation basis. Although it was desirable to have information on individual organisations, she said not having it this year was “not necessarily fatal” in progressing work to close the gender pay gap.