Equality Act guidance may leave small firms confused, Forum warns
The non-statutory guidance on the Act has been drawn up by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It is supposed to be clear and simple enough for all businesses to understand.
But with the document stretching to more than 300 pages, and with just six months to go before the Act comes into force in October, the Forum is concerned that many small businesses will struggle to make sense of their new obligations.
Additionally, the Forum believes much of the guidance’s wording is ambiguous and misleading, making it difficult for business owners to know exactly how they are expected to prevent discrimination in line with the forthcoming changes to the law.
The Forum raised its concerns with the EHRC in response to a consultation on the guidance, which closed today. (Friday 16 April 2010)
In a letter to the equality watchdog’s chairman, Trevor Philips, Forum chief executive Phil Orford welcomes the Act as a move aimed at consolidating existing anti-discrimination legislation.
However, he points out that the guidance accompanying the Act appears to have been drawn up with only large businesses in mind.
Mr Orford writes: “The employment guidance is just short of 300 pages, an obvious hindrance for most small business owners who often have severe limits on their time.
“Much of the content also appears to be drafted for larger businesses with specialist HR or legal departments and extensive formalised processes. Many of the examples are not relevant to the experiences of small business owners and will not help them determine what they need to do to be compliant.”
Mr Orford goes on to explain that the Forum is also concerned that the supposedly easy-to-understand guide may misinform or confuse employers as to their obligations. The guide appears to create ambiguity in a number of key areas and is also inconsistent in its use of language – creating a recipe for confusion.
Mr Orford writes: “Unfortunately, the guidance, in its present state, does not achieve the clarity necessary to achieve real change in business behaviour. It fails to provide clear and accurate advice to business owners about the requirements of the Act.
“In seeking to go beyond basic legal guidance and provide best practice recommendations, the clarity of the advice becomes muddled and lost. We believe that this confusion will lead to further costs as businesses either over-comply with the legislation or are forced to bear the burden at subsequent tribunals of not engaging with the legislation.”
Calling for clearer guidance to be issued, Mr Orford adds: “Understandably, the EHRC wants to ensure that legislative change translates into practical changes in the workplace and that equality becomes a part of everyday business. We understand the value of this aim and believe that it is achievable for most small businesses.
“However, it will only be achieved when businesses are given clarity about their obligations and are not being overburdened by regulation.”
The Equality Bill recently became the Equality Act after receiving Royal Assent on 8 April 2010. Many of its main provisions will come into force in October 2010 but others are set to be phased in over the next three years.
The Forum is planning to offer its members a simple and cost-effective, web-based training course in the near future which will help them understand their obligations under the Act.