Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) will need to be increasingly mindful of equality and diversity issues long after the controversy over the Equality Bill has died down, according to a panel of experts from academia, business and politics.
The experts gathered at a debate called Equality and Diversity in the SME sector: after the bill, organised by ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) and the Federation of Small Business (FSB).
The Equality Bill is currently undergoing Committee stage consideration in the House of Lords, and SMEs have been exempt from some of the provisions, such as reporting on the pay gap between male and female employees.
However, the implications of the Bill could still be profound. SMEs are often ill-informed about the benefits of a diverse workforce and ill-equipped to seize the opportunities it offers. SMEs employ 59 per cent of the private sector workforce - if they cannot do their part for equality and diversity voluntarily, the entire agenda could be in trouble.
Panellists at the event, which was chaired by ACCA Council Member Sara Harvey FCCA, included:
• Helen Brand, Chief Executive of ACCA;
• Andrew Cave, Head of Policy at the FSB;
• Lord Cotter of Congresbury, Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Business, Innovation and Skills;
• Chris Creegan, director of people and public affairs at the National Centre for Social Research;
• Mark Harper MP, Conservative Shadow Minister for Disabled People;
• Andy Love MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Small Business Group;
• Professor Peter Urwin, Director of the Centre for Employment Research, University of Westminster.
According to the panellists, small businesses are among the Government’s strongest allies in its efforts to improve equality and diversity. Working for a small business is itself a way for many to sidestep discrimination or negative attitudes, and a way out of disadvantage. Small businesses are able to achieve these positive outcomes for employees without the benefit and burden of written policies.
Panellists noted, however, that an explicit and systematic commitment to equality and diversity is necessary for small businesses themselves to reap the full benefits of a diverse workforce. Such commitments need not involve long and complex legal documents; given the right advice and support, small businesses can create policies that are fit for purpose, without compromising their flexibility as employers.
Helen Brand, ACCA’s chief executive, says: “SMEs need to look beyond the controversy of the Equality Bill and focus on what good employment practice actually is. We need to shift the debate from the law and the cost of non-compliance to good practice and its benefits.”
John Wright, National Chairman, Federation of Small Businesses, said: “It is important that the equalities agenda is relevant for small businesses. This event was an important opportunity to refocus the equality debate onto the people who employ more than half the private sector workforce.
Small firms don’t have the HR team that big businesses have to ensure they are following the frequently changing equality laws and do not have the resources to put in place comprehensive policies on equality. Written policies don’t create equality and we need practical measures and simple guidance to make these difficult laws applicable for the majority of UK employers.”
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