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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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