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Gender Equality Duty - is Local Government Ready?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

At a conference hosted by the LGA (Local Government Association) for the EOC (Equal Opportunities Commission) on the impact the forthcoming Gender Equality Duty will have on local authorities Meg gave the following speech.


From April 2007 local authorities, like other public authorities, will be under a new general equality duty. They will have to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and harassment, and promote equality of opportunity between men and women in all their public functions. So from April promoting gender equality will no longer be an option, but a fact of your working life.


I think that’s it’s excellent that this event, and a number of others, are taking this new Duty seriously and providing help and information. You will need to better understand what will be required for this new public sector duty, how it affects your authority, the workforce, and the public who we all serve.


With this new Duty all local authorities will have to think differently, about their ethos, their structure and the services they provide. In addition a sharp eye should focus on employment practices, do they need to change in order to better meet the individual needs of women and men. A focus on the gender equality duty will be on facts, positive action and the differences it will make; it will not be about processes. 


Since the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, more and more women are now in the labour market - helped by increasingly flexible working patterns and increased childcare.  More recently, girls are outperforming boys at school and universities, and in subjects like science and technology. However women still come second in the workplace, as well as in other spheres of life.


But men also face inequalities, particularly if they want to have a full role as fathers. Trying to achieve a balance between work and family responsibilities is still not easy.  We need to carry on moving forward in tackling issues of inequality, and this new public sector duty on gender equality helps us to do that.


Focus on High-Quality Services

The main strength of this duty will be in ensuring that local authorities focus on delivering high-quality, responsive public services whilst better meeting the individual needs of men and women. They will have to examine employment practices, and examine their service delivery mechanisms.


Each local authority will decide what action they need to take, proportionate to its size, scope and role. This will be done when drawing up and consulting on their objectives. Local authorities have to positively promote equality of opportunity rather than solely taking steps to prevent discrimination. The more equality of opportunity there is, the less scope there is for discrimination. 


We know that some public authorities - especially local authorities - already carry out good gender equality practice and I want to pay tribute to them.  There may be others who have been resistant to pursuing gender equality objectives, either because of resource constraints or a lack of a legal requirement to do so. From April that excuse will not wash.


You will hear about the detailed legal requirements, and the ‘specific duties’ that local authorities will need to comply with - from the Equal Opportunities Commission’s Chair, Jenny Watson. But before then some thoughts from a Government perspective.


We are aware that resources in the public sector have to be used more efficiently. With this in mind officials have worked hard to ensure the new requirements are as sensibly consistent as possible, with the duties relating to race and disability.  That is why the gender duty regulations we laid in Parliament in November broadly follow the framework of the disability equality duty. 


This means that the gender specific duties centre on “gender equality schemes”. These will outline the public authority’s gender equality objectives and its action plan to implement them over a three-year period. These objectives must be drawn up in consultation with relevant stakeholders, for example, employees, trade unions, consumers, voluntary and community sectors. Objectives must be based on available evidence.


Under the gender equality scheme public authorities will be:

  • confirming actions necessary and acting to achieve gender equality objectives,
  • considering whether one of their gender equality objectives should address the causes of any gender pay gap, and
  • assessing the impact of policies, services and employment practices on women and men.

Gender Pay

With regard to the gender pay, public authorities are required to consider this. This act of consideration will involve consultation with employees and trade unions. If public authorities decide to have such an objective, they will be in a better position to decide what action they should take proportionate to the size, scope and role of the public authority.


A useful tool in thinking in gender equality terms more frequently will be impact assessments. The requirement to assess the impact on policies, services or employment practices will show whether they have a disproportionate effect on women or men. If such an effect does exist, then the public authority should be able to establish what is causing it and take action to do something about it.


Effective compliance with the gender equality duty will be very important. A significant benefit may well be a reduction in the number of sex discrimination cases brought before the courts.


This duty is crucial. I think the effect for society has not yet been appreciated. It is about taking proactive action in identifying and meeting the different needs of men and women. It makes us all consider what we do, how do we do it, and what affect, positive or negative, does it have. Using the Gender Equality Duty to examine the services we provide, and how we provide them, can only help us get better at serving the people who rely upon local government.

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