The Liberal Democrats’ latest U-turn: equal pay

Theresa May to scrap compulsory gender pay audits, which Liberal Democrat manifesto promised to impl

Liberal Democrat MPs are increasingly well-practised at eating their words. The latest reversal is over equal pay audits.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, will announce later today that plans to force companies to disclose how much they pay men and women are to be scrapped. Instead, companies will be asked to narrow the pay gap – one of the worst in Europe – through voluntary efforts.

It comes as no surprise that a Conservative-led government has opted to scrap this clause in the Equality Act – it is unpopular with big business. But it does fly in the face of a Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to introduce fair pay audits for every company with more than 100 employees. This went further than Labour's draft legislation, which limited the measure to companies with more than 250 employees.

It will also be a humiliating climbdown for the Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone, junior minister for equality, who said in June 2008 that the legislation did not go far enough:

A voluntary audit system for private industry is hardly worth the paper it's printed on. We need to know when the government actually plans to step in if progress isn't made.

The government's failure to grasp the nettle of private-sector pay will provide little comfort to the enormous numbers of people who are still being discriminated against in the workplace.

Featherstone has not issued a statement in the response to the new move.

Not only is this an about-turn for the Lib Dems, it is a huge step backwards in the fight to equalise pay. Women in the UK earn, on average, 21.4 per cent less than men. A recent study estimated that, at the current rate of change, pay would not be equalised until 2067. It is clear that we need to take positive action to speed this process along.

Gender equality groups such as the Fawcett Society have consistently pointed to the UK's culture of secrecy around pay as one of the reasons that the gap persists. In Sweden, when transparency measures were introduced, the gender pay gap has narrowed greatly.

Speaking to the Financial Times this year, Harriet Harman explained the thinking behind the compulsory audit:

It is all too easy for people to say there is unfairness in pay but not here, and it is very important – knowledge is power – for people to see the pay gap in their workplace.

Though the voluntary measures that will replace gender pay audits have not yet been spelled out, it is probably safe to assume that the bite has been taken out of the act altogether.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.