Why haven’t we closed the disability employment gap?

Why haven’t we closed the disability employment gap?

Despite reforms to disability legislation, there has been little progress towards the Government's aim of halving the disability employment gap. The gap has increased slightly since 2012, and, even on longer-term trends, progress has been very slow. In 1998, the gap stood at 35.9%. In the 18 years which followed, it reduced by just 2.8 percentage points, to 33.1%. This painstakingly slow progress is the result of a number of significant barriers which have proved difficult to overcome.

Gender discrimination in the workplace

Gender discrimination in the workplace

Despite significant advances in legislation, the gender pay gap signals a long way to go to achieving gender equality in the UK. Whilst The Equality Act 2010 states that discriminating on the bias of gender is unlawful, there are unsatisfactory enforcement procedures. There needs to be increased transparency within companies and appropriate checks to ensure anti-discriminatory laws are being enacted.

The motherhood pay penalty

There was depressing news for working women this week. More than four decades after the Equal Pay Act, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that women are earning 18% less per hour than men on average.

The research showed that this pay gap increases markedly if women have children – growing year-on-year after childbirth and hitting 33% by the time the child is 12 – suggesting mums are missing out on pay rises and promotions in the workplace, and instead suffering from a motherhood pay penalty.

The IFS study echoes TUC findings from earlier this year. A report we published with the IPPR confirmed the existence of this motherhood pay penalty. While the IFS study rightly highlights the impact that working part-time can have on the pay gap, our report looked at women working full-time and showed that there is still a significant pay penalty for women who have returned to full-time work after having children, if they had them before the age of 33.

The TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady has called this motherhood pay discrepancy a "scandal". All mothers should be supported and treated fairly in the workplace, regardless of the age at which they have their children, their seniority in the workplace or whether they work full or part-time. So, why is this still happening?

Our evidence suggests that despite talk about parents taking a more equal approach to childcare, too many women are still shouldering the load. Women remain the primary care-givers and they are still far more likely than men to reduce their working hours after having children. And, too often, women still face discrimination at work – and can struggle to get access to justice when they do.

A lack of well-paid, part-time or other flexible jobs and affordable childcare mean many women drop out of the workplace or reduce their hours until their children are at school, missing out on vital years of experience and earning potential.

What’s the answer? At the current snail’s pace rate we are going it’s going to take us decades to close the gender pay gap so we urgently need a step change in both government policy and employer attitudes to fix the problem.

Firstly, a good start would be support for more equal parenting roles to stop women being held back at work. Shared parental leave is a step in the right direction, but we know take up is very low due to lack of incentives for fathers to take the leave. The Government should introduce better paid ‘dads only’ leave that would encourage fathers to a more active role in parenting, which would benefit them and their children.

Secondly, free childcare provision from the end of maternity leave, rather than age three, would also help. More free childcare would help minimise the pay penalty for single mothers, who we know face significant barriers to paid work, especially when their children are very young. Single parents are still less than half as likely as couple parents to be in work when their children are under five. And free childcare from the end of maternity leave would help younger mothers with less seniority and lower pay to stay in work after having children.

And thirdly, much more must also be done to open up higher skilled, better paid jobs to flexible working or reduced hours. There are very few good quality job opportunities being advertised with flexible or part-time work options – just 6% of those advertised with a full-time equivalent of £19,500 or more. This would really help keep mums in the labour market and it would enable more women in part-time roles to continue to progress, rather than getting stuck in low-paid, part-time work after having children.

We’ve also got to see better enforcement of legislation against discrimination linked to pregnancy and childbirth. A recent EHRC survey on pregnancy discrimination found incredibly high levels of pregnancy and maternity discrimination, affecting 77% of mothers and forcing tens of thousands of women out of their jobs each year. Younger mothers are much more likely to report discrimination –  a fifth said they were dismissed or were treated so badly that they were forced out of their jobs because of pregnancy or maternity leave, compared to one in ten mothers overall.

And these women who experience pregnancy or maternity discrimination must have access to justice. It currently costs £1,200 to take a claim to tribunal, and even workers employed on the minimum wage have to pay these fees if a member of their household has savings of £3,000. Many mums would struggle to find this cash to spare, especially when a new baby has just arrived. The Government needs to abolish employment tribunal fees to ensure all women – and in fact all workers – are able to take a claim to enforce their basic rights at work.

Alice Hood is Head of Equality at TUC


We must tackle racial disparities in poverty

Participation in the labour market generally has an enormous impact on the ability of individuals and families to move out of poverty with problems around both access to and progression within work helping to explain the strikingly different poverty rates across ethnic groups. The rates for those defined as persistently poor between 2009 and 2012 were 14.1% for individuals of Black African heritage, 13.7% for those of Pakistani heritage and 5.1% for those from White groups.  

Some of this, especially for relatively new arrivals, can be traced to language issues - speaking English as a first language reduces the likelihood of being in persistent poverty by a substantial 5 percentage points. Weak English language skills are associated with the types of social and occupational segregation behind some groups’ disproportionate presence in work that is both poorly paid and which offers few prospects for progression. Pakistani and Bangladeshi men, for instance, are far more likely to be earning below the living wage.

However as the Women and Equalities select committee noted in its recent report on Muslim women, inequality, discrimination and Islamophobia also have a stark impact on people’s poverty risk.  Muslim women are 71% more likely than White Christian women to be unemployed, more likely than women from other groups to be asked about their marital status or family aspirations in job interviews, and their participation in the workplace is greatly affected by the disproportionate number of hate crime attacks perpetrated against them.    

For those at the start of their occupational careers, the likelihood that they will be able to escape low income adulthood is slim, and focussed government policy attention in both early years, through the extension of free childcare, but also in the transition between adolescence and adulthood, in reform to post-16 education is of the utmost importance.  Young people who begin their working lives in low paid work find it difficult to move beyond this while those who experience early unemployment can be faced with longer term periods without work.  The unemployment gap is high between ethnic groups – in 2014 young minority ethnic people had an unemployment rate of 28.6% compared with 15.5% for young white people.

This should be a cause of major concern. Earlier this month the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a report Counting the Cost of UK Poverty in which we outlined the cost to the public purse of people being in poverty across a range of indicators including health, education and criminal justice.  Poverty costs us all financially – £69 billion in spending on public services, with an additional 9 billion in benefits spending and lost tax revenue.  The spend on education at approximately £10 billion, is a combination of the Pupil Premium and other targeted local authority work, and directly addresses support for children from low income families.  Investment of this kind is showing results with BME school attainment on an upward trajectory, but unless more is done to smooth young people’s transitions into the world of work their poverty risk will remain high, with the broader cost of the harms caused by such inequalities difficult to express in financial terms.  

Strategies to support transitions for poorer young people should include the provision of good quality careers advice, together with access to good quality apprenticeships and more effective widening participation activity from universities to address the woefully low representation of poorer young people across the higher education sector.  These areas however require reform – high quality careers advice is patchy, and while the emerging Apprenticeships Levy may assist in incentivising employers to provide better quality apprenticeships, access for minority ethnic young people is low – 26% of those applying for apprenticeships are from minority ethnic backgrounds but only 9.5% are successful.   

The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has spoken of the clear inequalities that exist in the UK which can impact on life chances, employability and quality of life which suggests the possibility of renewed policy focus on early years, the criminal justice system and education among others.  These are all public policy areas in which those from poor and/or minority ethnic backgrounds experience ongoing difficulties and initiatives to address these will be welcome.

It is clear that the financial cost of poverty to society, in the form of lost earnings and increased spend on areas such as health and education, can be reduced with effective action to tackle its causes and the broader impact of particular inequalities, such as discrimination in recruitment processes exacerbates this.  These costs, while clearly tangible and measurable as we have shown, are also both moral and ethical and should contribute to our ‘collective shame’ – that within a prosperous society, the failure to support its most vulnerable members not only contributes to broader economic cost, but to social, material and psychological harm.

Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard is policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Is the university application system biased?

A number of researchers have argued that there is evidence of bias against Black, minority and ethnic (BME) university applicants. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has repeatedly refuted these claims. But UCAS has, until very recently, refused to publish the full application data for researchers to examine. This blog examines the existing and latest evidence of whether there is bias against BME students applying for university.


Last September, UCAS published a short data release which they argued showed there was no systematic bias against BME applicants in the university application system. While the offer rate for BME applicants was 15 percentage points lower than for white applicants, UCAS argued that this was attributable, almost entirely, to differences in applicants’ predicted A-level grades. That is, a BME applicant predicted to achieve three A grades in their A-Level examinations is as likely to be offered a place at university as a white applicant predicted to achieve the same grades.

However, a number of researchers criticised the UCAS data release. Vikki Boliver, a senior lecturer at Durham University, suggested that the UCAS data was incomplete. Boliver observed that the UCAS data, released in September, excluded applicants to the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, excluded applicants to medicine and dentistry courses, and excluded applicants who were predicted to achieve three A* grades at A-Level. In addition, she criticised UCAS for amalgamating ethnic minorities into one, single group. She argued that some ethnic minority groups were more likely to experience bias than others, and that amalgamating the groups might conceal this.

Boliver pointed to her own research that shows that predicted grades only partially account for the lower offer rates for BME applicants. Indeed, her evidence suggests that the bias against BME applicants is greater when the applicant is applying to a course which has a large proportion of BME applicants. She argues that this suggests that admissions selectors may be rejecting some of their BME applicants to achieve a more ethnically representative student body.

Other evidence has supported Boliver’s findings. Academics from the London School of Economics and the University of Bristol analysed UCAS data from 2008. They controlled for a number of variables which sought to capture the academic quality of applicants, such as A-Level results and UCAS tariff score. They found that, when controlling for academic quality, BME applicants from almost every different group received significantly lower offer rates in all subject areas than white applicants; only mixed-race applicants obtained a similar offer rate to white applicants. This study also carried out a further analysis which controlled for social characteristics (social class background, gender and school type). When controlling for social characteristics, the researchers found that the lower offer rates persisted for all BME applicants except, again, mixed race applicants.

New data

Three weeks ago, after significant Government pressure, UCAS published a large swathe of application data broken down by ethnicity. Since then a number of analyses of the data have been published. It should be noted that these early analyses will almost certainly be surpassed by more robust academic evaluations in the coming months and years. Furthermore, as Mark Leach, a former advisor to the Shadow Minister for Universities & Science and editor of WonkHE, has stated, large releases of data can lead to information overload and create a risk of misinterpretation. We should be wary of this when considering these analyses.

However, the early analyses can still provide an interesting insight into the bias debate.  The data released by UCAS provides application and offer data at the institutional level. The data provides an ‘offer rate’ (the proportion of applicants who are offered a university place) which is broken down by sex, ethnicity and socio-economic background. The rate controls for predicted grades.

Across the whole sector, the data appears to show there is no statistically significant difference in offer rates between white applicants and all BME applicants. There are two significant caveats to this.

First, while UCAS argues that their method is the “most precise” they have, so far, refused to publish the underlying data which has allowed them to develop this method. Second, the Equality Challenge Unit have argued that small, non-statistically significant differences in offer rates can be projected into much greater differences in the graduate labour market and in postgraduate opportunities. To illustrate this, they offer an example from a different context, the promotion of women within US companies. Research shows that women receive less favourable evaluation of their work than men. This research suggests that the bias is between 1% and 5%. While this appears a small difference, computer simulation illustrates the larger effects this can have on the promotion of women over time. In a cohort of 500 people, a 5% bias in evaluation would lead to 29% of the highest-level staff (the most promoted) being women and 58% of the lowest level staff (the least promoted) being women. Similarly, a small bias against BME candidates may lead to considerable differences later on.

While the data shows no difference in offer rates across the sector, there appears to be evidence of some bias at an institutional level. WonkHE’s analysis has shown that 28 institutions had a significant gap in the ‘offer rate’ between Black (which is comprised of Black – Caribbean, Black – African, Black – other, Black or Black British – Caribbean, Black or Black British – African and applicants of other Black background) applicants and the average application rate, after controlling for predicted grade, in, at least, two of the last three years. Similarly, 25 institutions had a significant offer rate gap for Asian applicants (which is comprised of Asian – Indian, Asian or Asian British – Indian, Asian – Pakistani, Asian or Asian British – Pakistani, Asian – Bangladeshi, Asian or Asian British – Bangladeshi, Asian – Chinese, and applicants of other Asian background). In both cases, this represents around one fifth of higher education providers in the UK. Interestingly, particularly in regards to the offer rate gap for Asian applicants, many of the offending institutions are those with the most Asian applicants. This supports Boliver’s theory that admissions selectors may reject some of their BME applicants to achieve a more representative student body.


There has been a longstanding debate over whether there is bias in the university admissions system. UCAS has recently published a large quantity of data regarding offer rates and the ethnicity of applicants. Early interpretations of the data suggest that across the whole sector there is little evidence of bias against BME applicants. However, we should be cautious about over-interpreting these early analyses. Academics are likely to conduct more robust examinations of this data that may show different findings. At an institutional level, there is some evidence of bias particularly among universities which have a large proportion of BME applicants. The Government should be congratulated on persuading UCAS to publish this data which has provided much more transparency to the bias debate.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue

Why do private schools achieve better exam results?

The perceived advantages that private schooling confers are once again in the news. Last week, the Rt Hon Matthew Hancock MP, the Paymaster General, suggested that companies should ask job applicants whether they went to private school. The announcement provoked a number of articles condemning the apparent inequality that private schooling produces - both in terms of academic attainment and future labour market outcomes.

This blog focuses on why private school students achieve better exam results. On the face of it, the advantages from attending private school are stark. In 2014-15, 19% of A-level entries at private schools were graded A*, compared with a national average for all schools of 8%. Similarly, 32% of private school GCSE papers achieved A* compared to a national average of 8%. While these figures show a strong association between private schooling and exam attainment, they do not necessarily show that private schools cause better attainment.

Private schools may admit students with certain prior characteristics that cause them to do better in exams. In other words, private schools may not add value, but simply benefit from the type of students that attend them. To disentangle this, you need to compare the exam results of students with similar characteristics who attend both private and state schools. A number of studies have attempted to do this, controlling for prior characteristics such as academic selection upon entry or socio-economic background. Then you will be able to see if private schools do really add value to academic attainment.

Academic selection

Most private schools are academically selective. That is, they employ some form of entrance exam, usually the Common Entrance Examination. The more elite the private school, the more academically selective they are likely to be. For instance, for entry in 2015, the Prime Minister’s former school Eton rejected around 750 applicants who failed to achieve a high enough entrance exam score.

Controlling for academic selection has proved reasonably easy for researchers. This is because there are a number of state schools in the United Kingdom which still select students by academic ability: grammar schools.

Studies which have found that the difference in exam results between state and private schools substantially reduces once they are both selective. Sullivan and Heath, for example, compared the GCSE results of students at academically selective state schools to those of private schools. The found that the exam results of selective state schools were similar, but not quite equal, to the exam results of private schools. In contrast, the difference between non-selective state schools and selective state schools or private schools was much greater. Similarly, a further study estimated that approximately 80% of the difference in GCSE performance between private schools and state schools was due to academic selection. These studies suggest that a significant proportion of the gap between exam results at state and private schools can be explained by the prior academic ability of private schools’ students. This implies that private schools are not necessarily adding much value.

Socio-economic background

Private schools admit students from more affluent backgrounds. Studies have shown that cognitive ability is significantly associated with parental socio-economic background. Fee-charging private schools may be simply benefitting from admitting more wealthy students than from causing any better outcomes.

Controlling for socio-economic background, in addition to academic selection, has proved much more difficult for researchers. A study published earlier this year found when prior academic ability and IDACI (an index of deprivation which measures the proportion of children under the age of 16 that live in low income households in a particular neighbourhood) were controlled for, the average GCSE difference between students studying at private schools and those studying at state schools fell from two GCSE grades to 0.64 of a GCSE grade.

The study was limited because IDACI is measured at a postcode level. The study therefore cannot be used to identify the exact socio-economic grade of students within that postcode. If this was possible, the differences between private and state schools students may reduce the GCSE grade difference further. The National Pupil Database (NPD), which does include the socio-economic background of specific students - for example, by using the Free School Meals (FSM) proxy, cannot be used since submission to the NPD is voluntary for private schools.

Regardless, the available evidence suggests that the gap in exam scores between private and state schools is greatly reduced once you compare students from similar neighbourhoods.

Other confounding factors

While academic selection and socio-economic background explain a significant proportion of private schools perceived advantaged, they do not appear to explain it all. The aforementioned study which controlled for IDACI and prior ability still found that a 0.64 grade difference persisted. This may be partly explained by weak indicators of deprivation and prior ability. However, it may also be explained by other characteristics that private school students possess. For instance, parents from higher socio-economic backgrounds may be able to provide greater support to their children throughout their education through, for example, access to extracurricular activities. There also may be unobserved causal effects, such as parental academic attainment, which contribute to private schools’ advantage.

The only method of controlling for such variables would be to randomly assign a large group of children to private and state schools. Unfortunately, no research has found a way to carry out such a study in the United Kingdom. There are, however, some interesting international studies. The US state of Louisiana runs a scheme called the Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP). The LSP provides vouchers for disadvantaged students at low-performing Louisiana public schools to attend private schools of their choice. The vouchers are allocated randomly through a lottery system. A study from December last year compared the educational outcomes of lottery winners and lottery losers. The study found that lottery winners did significantly worse in examinations than lottery losers. This suggests that private schooling does not add value to randomly selected pupils in Louisiana. We should, of course, be wary of applying American research to British schools. However, in the absence of a randomised study from the UK, the research does offer an interesting insight into the effectiveness of private schooling.


Private schools achieve significantly better exam results than state schools. However this attainment gap does not necessarily mean that private schools add value. They may simply benefit from the type of students that attend them. Evidence suggests that private schools benefit from being academically selective, this allows them to admit only academically excellent students. In contrast, most state schools are not selective and thus admit students with a range of academic abilities. Moreover, private school students are much less likely to come from deprived backgrounds than their state school counterparts. When these two variables are controlled for, much of the difference between private and state schools in exam performance is explained. Designing randomised trials to test all the possible variables associated with public and private schools has proved difficult in the UK. However, evidence from the Louisiana Scholarship Program  suggests that private schools do not add value in the United States, at least.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue

Why conservatives should defend human rights: The case of racial equality

Considering the experience of black and minority ethnic people in the UK, conservatives have at least two reasons to support human rights. First, human rights should amend if not replace conservative support for a narrow vision of basic freedoms. Racial discrimination has been historically defended on grounds of individual liberty, an argument that that was explicitly affirmed by the Conservative Party until at least the 1970s. Second, human right principles are a philosophically and pragmatically better response than a prominent conservative alternative to what John Rawls calls ‘reasonable pluralism’.

Conservatives since Burke tend to be sceptical of the idea that human rights might be grounded in universal claims about human nature, claims that appear to rest on curious metaphysical claims or ‘nonsense upon stilts’.[1]

At the same time conservatives are deeply committed to the rule of law, and in most cases support the actual content of human rights, even where there is scepticism about their grounding in abstract philosophical claims. Instead, conservatives point to custom or tradition, and suggest that in England (and Britain) a long tradition of rights can be traced back to Magna Carta and further elaborated through incremental parliamentary and social change, notably including the ‘Glorious Revolution’.

There is reason to doubt the accuracy of this standard Whiggish account – an account shared by many liberals and conservatives alike. Instead, I will suggest, conservatives should much more explicitly defend human rights based on the experience of the treatment of ethnic minorities in Britain. 

The need for race relation legislation 

Conservatives should be wary of interpreting common law as inevitably protecting people’s civil liberties and viewing human rights as a corrupting influence on this superior tradition. Under common law English men had the freedom to discriminate on grounds of race, a freedom that was unfortunately exercised over the course of history until the 1960s. As related by Hon. Justice Rabinder Singh, The West Indian cricketer Learie Constantine had in 1944 challenged the Imperial Hotel for refusing to serve him, but the case carried no further weight or protection under common law. At a reception marking the 50th anniversary of the first race relations act in December, Paul Stephenson, the leader of the Bristol bus boycott, related how he was kicked out of a pub for daring to order a half pint of beer, and how numerous police arrived to escort him to prison and then charged him in court with refusing to comply with the publican’s racist demand that he leave.

Cases like these explain why Parliament passed various race relations acts in 1965, 1968 and then 1976. The legislation needed updating in such quick succession because the first act was so weak (in part because of vocal Conservative opposition to it), failing to protect black and minority ethnic people even from the infamous ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs, or from discrimination in the labour market, where it remained legal not to employ someone because of the colour of their skin until the 1968 Act.

At that December reception Conservative MPs including Maria Miller and Kwasi Kwarteng expressed their disappointment but also bafflement at their predecessors’ rejection of race relations legislation. In one way today’s Conservative MPs are right to think that many of their predecessors (and some Labour MPs of the day) were more motivated by explicit racism, but there’s two further lessons for contemporary conservatives.

First, that high-minded or general reference to the ‘rule of law’ or even ‘basic liberties’ have historically proven insufficient to protect the rights and freedoms of disadvantaged and less powerful groups. It’s worth reminding ourselves that rights are always claimed by the less powerful against overweening authority – whether barons on the fields of Runnymede, sans-culottes against the ancien regime, ethnic minorities against racist landlords, or indeed those who today appear vulnerable to mistreatment or even torture by another state, typically (though not always) minorities.

Individual liberty and discrimination

The second lesson for conservatives is that there is a serious danger in appealing only to custom or, indeed, historic Englishness to defend minimalist civil liberties, and not to support human rights. In arguing against the 1968 Act, Enoch Powell’s argument that the black man would have the ‘whip hand’ over the white man was grounded in a view that white English men had the ancient liberty or freedom to discriminate. Powell’s argument was that liberties were for English men only, and not universal.

But however noxious Powell’s particular phrasing, his view that race relations legislation was contrary to English liberty was a key plank in the Conservative Party’s opposition to the 1968 Act. In his intervention in the Commons on 23 April 1968, Reginald Maudling explained the Opposition’s view: “we believe that it definitely encroaches on individual freedom and individual liberty”.[2]

The point of going over this history is not to condemn the Conservative party of the 1960s, or to gloss over reasonable concerns about the efficacy of the 1968 Act. Rather, these arguments are simply a recent example of the argument that liberty entails or requires the ability to discriminate. This was in fact, the more historically common interpretation of English (later British) civil liberties, and not only among conservatives, stretching back at least as far as parliamentary debate and popular pamphlets in the late 17th century that defended the expansion of the enslavement of African people.[3] At the same time as the Glorious Revolution Parliament followed democratic opinion in arguing that the Royal Africa Company’s monopoly on the slave trade was an infringement on English men’s liberties, in this case the freedom to trade in enslaved Africans.

Conservatives after Powell have of course rejected his claim that liberties are somehow unique to or prior for white English men, and it was Harold Macmillan whose ‘winds of change’ speech heralded the freedom of British colonies in Africa. At the same time, however, many conservatives hold to a version of the Whiggish view of the natural or inevitable development of rights first set into train at Runnymede 800 years ago, and have simply placed the various race relations acts within this wider story.

Universal rights 

Instead of seeing race relations acts as an organic and subtle change, we should probably agree with Maudling and view this legislation as a genuine break from a prior tradition. English men previously had the liberty to discriminate against others as a fundamental principle, with Magna Carta and later legislation clearly rejecting the idea that rights and liberties were universal or could be exercised by all. The idea of universal rights, is of course, a core plank of human rights.

By contrast, conservatives from Herder to Burke to Powell might be called ‘multiculturalists’: they believed that rights and customs were not universal, but rather attached to particular peoples and cultures with particular institutions and ways of doing things. An important strand of conservative thinking is resistant not only to the thought that human rights can be universally grounded, but also doubtful that non-English (or non-German or non-American or whatever) people will ever generally affirm English values and customs, including respect for civil liberties and the rule of law, unless they fully assimilate culturally and dispositionally. Powell was perhaps the ideal-type: he supported civil liberties because he was an Englishman, not the other way round. This is quite far from Kantian-influenced arguments about the role of reason in recognising the universal claims of all humans, and ably defended more recently by James Griffin

And it’s not just philosophers who agree about the universality of human rights. The United Nations now has a range of human rights treaties, including the first 1965 Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the vast majority of nation-states have signed up to these. Significantly, British conservative lawyers (including David Maxwell Fyfe) were the authors of much of this international legal framework, and remain some of its strongest defenders.

English (or British) Conservatives should therefore reject the idea that rights uniquely originated in the fertile soil at Runnymede, both because this tradition has proven inadequate for protecting the rights of ethnic minorities and because those rights are now accepted globally.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the conservative affirmation of liberty of opinion is understood to result in a diversity of views about what matters most, or what John Rawls has called ‘reasonable pluralism’.[4] Reasonable pluralism is a hallmark of an open society; it obtains when reasonable and rational people come to different conclusions or judgments about some of the most significant matter in our lives. Conservatives and liberals, atheists and Catholics may all have reasonable views about such matters, but cannot reasonably expect those with opposing views to simply conform to their position – at least not in an open society.

By way of a conclusion it is perhaps worth clarifying an important difference between the modern ‘multiculturalist’ tradition and the older conservative one. One of the things conservative critics of multiculturalism miss is that most of its defenders in fact hold quite strongly to a conception of universal human rights. While Runnymede and others have argued that we should recognise the historic and ongoing contribution of different cultures to British society, we have explicitly argued, most notably in the 2000 multi-ethnic Britain report[5] that human rights set a limit on how permissive the state can be with respect to cultural difference. In other words, we have argued that practices cannot be accommodated where they violate universal principles of human rights.[6]

The alternative is rather to view non-English or non-Christian cultures as being less committed to rights which instead originate in and can only be contingently grounded by dispositional deference to tradition. Conservatives are right to be sceptical of high-minded metaphysical arguments, but they should be equally sceptical of a fable in which civil liberties have naturally and uncontroversially evolved since 1215 (a fable described by the historian and Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption as ‘high-minded tosh’[7]). Especially in a context where ethnic minorities were denied their basic rights in recent memory, and where ethnic minorities will grow to one-third of the population by mid-century, conservatives should instead affirm the value of universal human rights as the best way to protect civil liberties and ultimately to ensure the long-term stability of British society and democracy.

Omar Khan is the director of the Runnymede Trust

[1] The phrase is Jeremy Bentham’s. See Waldron, J. (2009) Nonsense Upon Stilts: Bentham, Burke and Marx on the Rights of Man. London: Routledge.

[2] HC Deb 23 April 1968 vol 763 cc53-198; Maudling at column 154 http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1968/apr/23/race-relations-bill

[3] Pettigrew, W. (2015) ‘Civil Liberties and the Genesis of Racial Inequality: Freeing the Trade in Enslaved Africans’ in O. Khan (ed.) How Far Have We Come? Lessons from the 1965 Race Relations Act. London: Runnymede. http://www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/publications/pdfs/Race%20Relations%20Act%20Perspectives%20report.pdf

[4] Rawls, J. (1993) Political Liberalism. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[5] Often called the ‘Parekh report’ after its Chair, Lord Bhikhu Parekh. Commission on the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain (2000) The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain: The Parekh Report. Profile Books.

[6] As summarised in 2000, the Commission explained: ‘Negotiations over contested issues – for example, the content of the national curriculum, sensitivity to cultural diversity in the health service, the wearing of religious clothing at work, equality for women in the home – cannot take place in an ethical vacuum. They require ground rules that provide a minimum guarantee of protection for individuals and a framework for handling conflicts of interest. The argument in this chapter is that such ground rules are provided in part by international human rights standards’ http://www.runnymedetrust.org/projects/meb/reportPartOne.html#building

[7] Sumption, L. (2015) ‘Magna Carta then and now’. Address to the Friends of the British Library, 9 Marchhttps://www.supremecourt.uk/docs/speech-150309.pdf

Addressing the gender pay gap

Last Monday was International Women’s Day. The day marked 102 years since British suffragettes marched on Charing Cross leading to Sylvia Pankhurst’s arrest. British recruitment firm, Robert Half, used the day to highlight significant wage disparities between men and women.  Their analysis showed that working women in the UK are likely to be paid £300,000 less than men over the course of their career. These statistics provoked significant debate on the existence and causes of the gender pay gap.

Is there a gender pay gap?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) conducts an annual survey of hours and earnings (ASHE). This robust survey finds that, in 2015, there was a 9.4% gap between men and women’s pay for full-time workers. On average, men earned £96 more per week than women.

However, beneath the headline figures lie some interesting findings. For part-time workers, there was a gender pay gap in favour of women. In 2015, the gap between male and female part-time workers was -6.5%.

In addition to work hours, age matters enormously. Between the ages of 22 and 29, the pay gap between women and men was, on average, -0.8%. That is, women earn slightly more than men. Between the ages of 30 and 39, the gap was 0.6%. After the age of 40, the gender pay gap widens enormously. At ages 40 to 49 the gap was 12%, 17% at 50 to 59 and 13% for over 60s. 

There are also significant differences between occupations. The gap between men and women working in skilled trades was almost 25%, while the gap between men and women working in sales and customer service was less than 5%.

What causes the gender pay gap?

Clearly, there is a significant gap between the pay received by men and women. This is despite the fact that women now outperform men at almost every level of education. So what is driving the gap?

The single most important cause of the gender pay gap is hinted at in the data above. The average age for women to have their first child is now over 30 years old. Over two million women are economically inactive because they are looking after their children compared to just over 200,000 men.

After a period of extended leave, women rarely return to the wage of their male counterparts who did not exit the labour market. This largely explains why the gender pay is narrow, and even negative, between the ages of 22 and 40 before increasing dramatically after the age of 40.

How can policymakers rectify the gender pay gap?

There are a number of points at which policymakers might intervene to attempt to redress the gender pay gap.

Addressing the gap at its root

The first stage at which policymakers might intervene is when women leave the workforce to care for their children. This could be done by incentivising men to care for children, by making forms of childcare more affordable, or by increasing the availability of flexible working.

Generally, this has proved a popular way of attempting to close the pay gap. Measures such as shared parental leave - whereby up to 50 weeks of leave can be shared by parents - have attempted to incentivise more men to become the primary carer.

However, the Government’s own estimates suggest that only around 8% of men will actually utilise this leave. Indeed, Unilever - who offer new dads 37 weeks of paternity leave at full pay – find that only around 15% of eligible men utilise that leave.

Reducing childcare costs has also proved a popular way to incentivise women to return to work. Successive governments have introduced tax breaks for childcare in an attempt to make it more affordable, while the Government is currently in the process of meeting its promise to introduce 30 hours of free childcare per week for working parents.

Despite these reforms, the cost of childcare in the UK remains comparatively high. The cost of childcare in the UK regularly ranks among the highest in the world. And even when childcare costs are lower, the gender pay gap persists. For example, Sweden has some of the most generous childcare benefits in the world but a gender pay gap very similar to the UKs.

Returning to the workforce

The second obvious point at which policymakers might attempt to redress the pay gap is when women return to work. There are a number of ways of making the return to the workforce easier for women. These include: increasing the provision of flexible working and accelerated re-entry programmes.

The Coalition Government introduced the right to request – whereby employees with 26 weeks or more service are allowed to request flexible working, which employers must address in a 'reasonable manner'. Since the introduction of the legislation around 25% of all employees - and 36% of female employees with dependent children under the age of six - have requested more flexible hours, with around, 80% of requests either partially or fully instated.

US companies such as JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs have implemented re-entry programmes for women to allow them to return to work more easily after leave. Goldman Sachs, for example, operates a paid, ten week, return-to-work programme. People who have been out of the workforce for at least two years are eligible and Goldman Sachs provides them with training, mentoring and networking.

There is a significant and persistent gap in the pay of men and women in the UK. This is largely caused by women leaving the workforce to care for children. However, there is no silver bullet to redress the gap. The choices for policymakers are complex, and attitudinal change is likely required if the pay gap is to be eradicated.