Working Theory

by Michael Reed


I do employment law for the Free Representation Unit.


michael at


Marginalising, discriminating and treating people equally

20 November 2012

David Cameron, speaking to the CBI:

Let me be very clear. I care about making sure that government policy never marginalises or discriminates.

I care about making sure we treat people equally.

He goes on to say that caring about these things doesn’t have to mean supporting bureaucratic nonsense and that, therefore, the government will be abolishing Equality Impact Assessments (the consideration of what impact policies will have on protected groups). And that he’ll be reducing the scope of government consultations.

First, ensuring that government policy never marginalises or discriminates sounds like a laudable aim – but it’s really a cop out. All governments have to make hard choices. There are many problems in the world and governments have to choose which ones they’re going to solve and how they’re going to solve them. Unless and until we can reach some sort of post-scarcity utopia, this will involve making trade-offs which benefit some groups of people more than others.1 Saying that you want to ensure that the government never marginalises or discriminates is silly. It’s silly for the same reason that saying the government’s crime policy is to ensure that no crime is ever committed ever again would be silly. It’s an objective so far outside the governments capability to be meaningless.

This is related to my second point that, treating people the same, is the narrowest possible definition of ‘equality’ and not one that is really useful in terms of government policy. Treating people the same is relatively easy. But the same treatment means different things to different people. To take an obvious example, you can treat everyone equally by handing them the same form written in English. But that form is much more use to me than to a recent immigrant who speaks fluent Hindi, Tamil and Urdu, but no English.

That’s a simple example, but there are always more complicated consequences of government policy. For example, when fees are introduced in the employment tribunal, remission (ie. paying a lower fee or no fee) will depend on household income. This means that women bringing cases in relation to maternity are less likely to get a remission, because they are more likely to have a partner who is still earning money. This means that many of those women will only be able to bring a tribunal case with their partner’s permission – because that is where the money will have to come from for the fee. These women will be discriminated against. You might think that is justified, because you think fees are desirable and you’re willing to take that trade-off – but it’s silly to pretend the trade-off doesn’t exist.

It’s also silly to pretend that the trade-offs of government policy are obvious. I spend all my time dealing with employment law and employment tribunals – and I spent quite a lot of time thinking about fees. But the particular impact on maternity cases didn’t occur to me – someone pointed it out at a meeting I attended.

This, of course, is why things like Equality Impact Assessments are useful. They provide a formal and systematic way of trying to examine the trade-offs involved in government policy. It’s also why consultations are important. No matter how clever you are, someone else will always see something you don’t. Especially if they have more experience of an area than you do, or just a different experience.

It’s worrying that the PM thinks equality is easy; it’s not.

  1. Actually, I suspect that will be true in the post-scarcity utopia. So it goes.

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