The Sunday Times

November 27th, 2011

Beware, the equality zealots are unfair and cost us millions

It is almost self-evident that most people in this country approve of equality, whatever they mean by it. If so, it follows that most people probably approve pretty much, insofar as they think about it, of equalities legislation. Admittedly there are ludicrous stories, often true, about daft jobs being created in the name of equality: one of my favourites was a council job for a homosexual outreach worker to help underconfident gays exercise their right to have sex outdoors — a stalwart attempt to promote the active equality of doggers.

Everyone loves to tut-tut at all that. But behind the nonsense, most people imagine, lies a worthy and necessary determination to stop unfair discrimination on grounds of sex or race or religion — an active commitment to the ideal of equality. And the immense equalities industry that has grown up here is something many people consider necessary and desirable.

Over many years I myself have come to think precisely the opposite. I believe the equalities industry as it has developed is misguided, counterproductive and an active source of unfairness. This industry is intolerably expensive, especially now that the years of borrowed plenty are over. If people knew how much the equalities industry costs the country, in both the private and the public sector, they would be very much more inclined to question first whether we can afford it and second whether it really is a force for good.

What is not well enough understood is the fact that new laws have been imposing duties on employers that extend far beyond the obligation to avoid discriminating against individuals because of their sex, race or religion. Employers are now required to monitor, train and assess themselves continually and time-consumingly as to how truly equal their outcomes are, how representative their employees are of the wider population and how far they have sought out the right proportion (whatever that might be) of transgender people, females and people with disabilities.

They have a duty not just to avoid unjust discrimination, but actively to promote equality. This is an almost limitless duty to the point of absurdity. Another favourite example of such absurdity was the case of the Gloucestershire constabulary that got itself into a terrible muddle in its self-imposed secret “diversity drive” of 2006. In a fit of misplaced egalitarian virtue, driven by a government target of having 7% minorities people in the force, it suddenly “de-selected” more than 100 successful recruits simply because they were white men and hired instead every one of 129 female and minority candidates. An industrial tribunal told the force off for wrongful discrimination and ordered it to pay compensation in one case.

At the time of this “de-selection” policy, only 2.8% of Gloucestershire’s population was from an ethnic minority, according to the 2001 census, compared with an average of 8.7% across England and Wales — a perfect example of the equalities industry’s obsession with a dubious notion of representation. All the anxious self-inspection now required involves numerous bean counters, assessors and supervisors, who create an unpleasant atmosphere of guilt and fear and a nervousness about employing anyone at all, unless perhaps it is a new diversity officer.

At last, now, there is a serious investigation into this industry. The Civitas think tank is publishing a book this week by the sociologist Professor Peter Saunders, called The Rise of the Equalities Industry. It makes startling reading. Saunders’s research estimates that employers in both private and public sectors spend a total of nearly £1 billion a year on complying with the demands of equality legislation.

Saunders estimates that the costs of equalities monitoring amount each year to £150m in the service sector, £35m in manufacturing and £25m in construction; the total is £210m for small and medium-sized businesses — this is particularly alarming, because such firms are so necessary and so beleaguered — and £300m-£400m across the whole private sector. For the state sector the figure is up to £600m. Every time a new piece of legislation is introduced, such as Harriet Harman’s controversial Equality Act of 2010, yet more duties fall on employers and more money is required of taxpayers.

It might be said that all this expense is achieving something useful. Saunders argues that a large part of these costs is associated with mindless data collection, of no real use to anybody. I’m reminded of my local council’s parking consultation questionnaire, which included a whole page of questions devoted to ethnicity, as if skin colour could somehow be related to parking.

What Saunders has done is try to estimate or to make educated guesstimates about what the expenditure of the armies of apparatchiks really is. One of his many and hair-raising individual examples is the minor but quite incomprehensible wastefulness of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA). After London won the 2012 Olympic Games bid, the ODA — which is responsible for developing the infrastructure for the Games — set up an equality and inclusion team employing five senior-level managers on six-figure salaries to monitor diversity in companies bidding for construction and other contracts. It declined to divulge the total budget for this team.

Perhaps it is not surprising that people in the business now always talk of equalities in the plural because equality has acquired so many different and conflicting meanings that it hardly exists as a single concept. The old ideas of equality under the law and equality of opportunity have given way to more confused ideas about equality of outcome and special treatment under the law for some people under some circumstances.

The notion of equality by numbers is another unquestioned assumption: it clearly isn’t necessarily true that if well under 50% of physicists are women, then ipso facto women are being discriminated against in this field. Saunders writes well about the long march of aggressive egalitarianism through the institutions. This book ought to be required reading for every employer, and it is a gauntlet thrown down to every member of the equalities lobby.

My point is a much simpler one, however.

If the costs are really as great as these estimates suggest, or perhaps even greater, then the entire equalities industry should be abandoned as an unaffordable luxury.