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Artillery Row

Who’s ready for the Equality Levy?

Birmingham’s bankruptcy is a portrait of Britain’s future

After years of playing second fiddle, Brummies will no doubt be honoured to be leading the nation next tax year. With their council facing a £300 million fiscal blackhole, citizens of Britain’s second city can look forward to a 22 per cent hike on their council taxes – a surcharge I will dub the UK’s first Equality Levy.  

Why? The ballad of Birmingham’s bankruptcy, which was declared last September, boasts many familiar staples of the local government genre, including the obligatory £90 million lost on botched IT procurement. What really broke the camel’s back, however, was roughly £2 billion in indirect discrimination lawsuits. The council’s great crime: offering bonuses to binmen.

The city’s fate was sealed after thousands of employees from predominantly female professions — including teaching assistants, catering staff and cleaners — complained that they had not enjoyed a bonus offered to a handful of majority-male professions — like bin collection and road repairs —   which were officially on the same council pay grade. Following a 2010 tribunal victory, a 2012 Supreme Court ruling opened the floodgates by declining to limit retrospective claims. In all, the council has paid out £1.1 billion and is on the hook for an additional £650 million to £1.2 billion more.

The Conservative Government was, naturally, furious at the news. After all, what about all the male teaching assistants missing out on cushy binman bonuses? Why should sex be a barrier to cashing-in on sex discrimination claims? Woke nonsense! Keen to prove their salt, the Natural Party of Government recently passed an update to the Equality Act which will allow men in female-dominated professions to bring discrimination lawsuits. 

The new Section 19A incorporates a particularly bizarre piece of EU case law. In short: a Bulgarian electricity utility responded to its pylons’ reading meters being vandalised in a Romani-majority district by attaching them at a height residents couldn’t reach; only to find themselves sued by a non-Romani resident who claimed to have suffered racial discrimination by proxy. Bulgaria’s bemused courts threw this out; only to be overruled by the ever-innovative European Court of Justice. 

The upshot of all this is that future indirect discrimination lawsuits look likely to have significantly more plaintiffs, and bigger settlements. After all — Conservatives don’t divide the pie; Conservatives grow the pie! 

Not one to be outdone in the pudding department, Labour is promising a treat of its own. What if — shadow ministers posit — those teaching assistants had been Micronesian men, and the bourgeois binmen Eritreans? Why, in our modern age, should equal pay comparisons be limited to sex? The party’s draft Race Equality Bill promises to right this hypothetical wrong and drag Britain into the 2020s. Under the new legislation, members of a profession dominated by a particular ethnic group would be able to bring equal pay claims, should they feel mistreated compared to a profession of arguably “equal value”. 

Given that ethnic disparities between workforces are quite common, Labour’s plan represents a drastic broadening of discrimination lawyers’ potential clientele. The treacle train doesn’t stop there, though.

Enter the sexiest element of the Equality Act 2010: the Public Sector Equality Duty. It’s this part of the Act that explains why the NHS has pledged to reduce the proportion of whites in managerial positions by 27 per cent, GCHQ is setting aside jobs for non-white-men, the Civil Service and police have dropped numerical reasoning tests, the Army has made officer promotion contingent on “promoting diversity”, and the RAF paused recruitment of white males. 

For all the many talented people of all backgrounds in public service, a decade of diversity drives necessarily means that many people now hold positions that they wouldn’t have obtained through merit. In some organisations (anecdotally: NHS Trusts and parts of the Army), these people are given positions of genuine influence. In more self-aware bodies (anecdotally: the Royal Navy), such individuals are given nice titles and forbidden from touching anything important. The latter category may have once seemed a pleasant compromise, but Labour’s new legislation means that any disparities in treatment will be placed under the microscope. Lawsuits will, no doubt, follow. 

The gorge-fest isn’t limited to the public sector. Retailer Next is currently being sued by 2,000 female sales consultants, who are angry that predominantly-male warehouse workers are paid higher wages — a frustration which, oddly enough, hasn’t led any of the plaintiffs to request a warehouse job. Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and numerous other supermarkets are likewise facing a collective £8bn in claims, after the Supreme Court found that floor workers could be compared to distribution centre workers. With the Conservative-Labour double-whammy hitting the statute books, the coalition of claimants can only grow. 

Competence will continue to decline. Bureaucracy will continue to increase

What I describe is not apocalyptic — it’s the acceleration of an existing trend. Competence will continue to decline. Bureaucracy will continue to increase. A few smaller businesses, failing to navigate the new landscape, will be ruined. The odd council will go bankrupt. Larger companies and public bodies will pass growing costs onto the public and cut productive jobs. The number of bullshit jobs — so often spiritually draining to those who work them — will continue to expand to fill the paperwork requirements. Politicians will often be frustrated that they can’t get public bodies to do what they want; residents will complain about declining council services — neither will know the reason and, eventually, both will forget things were ever different. The story of 21st century Britain is that of a tightening noose of regulation and lawfare choking our prosperity at just too slow a pace for anyone to think to wriggle free.

I have faith that, as in past eras, our nation will one day shake itself from its malaise — perhaps following the next Labour government. In the meantime, I encourage roughly 98 per cent of British readers to draw solace from a simple, unshakeable fact: at least you don’t live in Birmingham.

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