Monday, 28 March 2011

Another fake cost saving measure which conveniently doesn't harm default people

Andy Godfrey mentions in comments that another area the Government intend to "save money" is by abandoning the implementation of the "dual discrimination" parts of the Equality Act 2010, having previously delayed their implementation.

Dual discrimination protection was introduced in the Equality Act to deal with the situation where, for instance, women are not discriminated against in general, and black people are not discriminated against in general, but black women are discriminated against. Under previous legislation, there was no legal recourse in this situation - dual discrimination would have introduced it.

It was one of the few areas in which the Equality Act unambiguously improved upon the previous legislation it replaced.

This was announced as part of the Budget speech by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne MP (Conservative, Tatton)

£350 million worth of specific regulations will go – including the Equality Act’s costly dual discrimination rules;

Okay. How can the dual discrimination rules be "costly"? Certainly losing a dual discrimination case would be costly for the employer (or other organisation - service providers, schools, landlords, etc.), but that situation would imply that there was discrimination in the first place.

Similarly, having a law against murder costs the UK taxpayer millions of pounds a year on court costs, legal fees, police and forensics teams, prison buildings and staff, and so on. But we have that law despite the financial cost because we believe murder is wrong.

Similarly, dual discrimination is wrong, so we should be willing to pay for enforcement of laws against it. (As a civil rather than criminal offence, it wouldn't even be the taxpayer doing most of the paying)

A second possibility: dual discrimination would be uniquely vulnerable to malicious and vexatious claims. This isn't likely - the number of people who could claim dual discrimination at all in practice is lower than the number who could claim single discrimination (not by definition - the default side of any characteristic in the Equality Act can usually also make a claim - but nevertheless true in practice)

Furthermore, someone who wished to make a malicious claim could do so under existing single discrimination laws, or under laws not related to discrimination.

So, there's certainly not much case for abandoning this solely on the grounds that it would save money. If one believes that discrimination at all is wrong, then dual1 discrimination is fairly obviously also wrong. The Conservatives are taking great pains to say that they definitely believe discrimination is wrong and try to shake off their deserved reputation as the party of the default. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, were if anything even more enthusiastic about the Equality Act than its Labour proposers, bringing several - mostly failed - amendments to try to extend its reach.

So: it's not that we "can't afford it", it's that the government doesn't want to.

But, actually, does dual discrimination legislation cost us anything in the first place? That all depends on who "us" are. We're "all in this together" apparently, so I'm going to define "us" as "anyone in the UK". This is the same measure that GDP uses, so there's no reason not to.

Okay. Let's take a typical employment discrimination case. Person A is paid less than person B, or refused a promotion, or not hired, not because of matters such as experience, performance, or aptitude, but because of their race, and/or disability, and/or some other protected characteristic.

Who loses out if this is corrected?

  • The employer which discriminated is likely to have to pay compensation, and possibly make other adjustments at its own expense.

Who loses out if this is not corrected?

  • The employer - again - which has failed to get the best person for the job, or to make best use of its employees, and so suffers reduced productivity.
  • The employee, who gets less or no money as a result.
  • Other employees or potential employees with a similar set of protected characteristics, who will likewise be discriminated against in future if the employer is not made to improve its procedures.

As with most government funding decisions, the first set is an obvious direct cost which can show up on a balance sheet. The second set are mainly intangible costs, which are virtually never considered in finance decisions, plus a very direct tangible cost to the discriminated-against person.

But all in all, it looks like the total financial cost is likely to be basically neutral. Actually, given the evidence from countries which have taken more steps than the UK against employment discrimination, the long-run financial cost of this decision is likely to be harmful to the economy, not helpful.

There are two beliefs that one could hold that would make this argument fall apart. I suspect Osborne and friends hold both:

  1. Money in the profits of a corporation is significantly more valuable to the economy than money in the pockets of an employee.

    Given that one of the major causes of recessions and problems with ending recessions is a major collapse in domestic spending - which then goes on to impact corporate profits anyway because no-one buys their stuff - this is rarely true. Certainly not now.

  2. Default people are inherently better at employment tasks than non-default people. The best person for a good job is always a straight white middle-aged non-disabled cis man. In a suit. With a briefcase. Therefore, almost all discrimination claims will be unfounded or vexatious - especially the dual discrimination claims - and so they should be banned. Worrying about the claims might lead companies to appoint underqualified women (which is tautologous) to avoid being sued.

    I can believe that a lot of the current government MPs believe this, but they were trying to pretend not to.

For some unspecified fraction of £350 million, of which most if not all would end up in the economy anyway, with possible productivity and economic bonuses in the long run, it seems rather cheap to correct some obvious social injustice.

Apparently not.


1 The fact that dual discrimination is not already illegal is a fairly distinct reflection of the compartmentalisation of equality considerations in mainstream UK politics.

The Equality Act went some way towards at least stopping these considerations being compartmentalised off from each other, though not towards removing much of the relentless default-focus in legislation not specifically concerning equality.