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5 things you need to know about equality and today's Scotland Bill debate

Scottish Parliament debating chamberWith amendments to the Scotland Bill falling like leaves, it doesn't seem likely that any of the positive equality amendments being debated on Monday are likely to make it into the statute books.

The (too) rapid progress of the Bill through the House of Commons means that some of the detail is passing in a bit of a blur. By any forecast, the use of some of the powers that are being transferred will happen within what seem to be extraordinarily narrow parameters. As we see the constraints on the Scottish Parliament in action there are likely to be additional awkward questions about whether the new Scotland Act can really be said to have delivered on the spirit of some of the commitments outlined in the Smith Agreement.

We think there are five important things to note about women's equality and today's debate.

1. Devolution of equality will be debated

Engender called for the wholesale devolution of equality law and regulation as part of our submission to the Smith Commission. Currently, Scotland has responsibility for deciding what public bodies must do to meet the requirements of the public sector equality duty (PSED), including publishing equal pay statements, but can't otherwise create regulation or legislate on equalities.

The SNP's new clause 49 (current amendments are here) would devolve equalities to the Scottish Parliament in its entirety. This is Engender's favoured approach, because it would allow some new thinking about equality law that had more coherent links with Scotland's economic development and social justice policy. It would also allow for the creation of a Scotland-specific equalities regulator, akin to Northern Ireland's Equality Commission.

2. There are specific amendments on gender quotas

We've had concerns that clause 32 as drafted didn't really seem to devolve the power to create gender quotas on public boards (or anything else that might have been covered by the "not limited to" phrase within the Smith agreement).

There are now both SNP and Labour amendments that relate to gender quotas. The SNP's devolves power to the Scottish Parliament to create quotas that relate to the boards of public authorities. Ian Murray's (Lab) goes slightly further and creates a requirement for gender balance "among the members of the Scottish Parliament". An additional clause, new clause 41, places a requirement on Scottish Ministers, six months after the Act has passed to "lay before the Scottish Parliament a comprehensive review of the measures which the Scottish Government is taking to further and to promote gender equality in the membership of the Scottish Parliament and on the boards of Scottish public authorities."

The proportion of women in the Scottish Parliament has dwindled since the first Parliament in 1999, and there would almost certainly be less than the one-third of female MSPs currently if not for the political upset of the SNP's enormous majority at the most recent election. A debate on this clause is to be welcomed, although there is undoubtedly something constitutionally awkward about having reports to the Scottish Parliament determined by a UK Act of Parliament.

3. Two approaches to devolution

The different approaches to the devolution of gender quotas reflects a broader tension. To generalise, the Scotland Bill is devolving the delivery of specific bits of policy and programmes, like the Work Programme, rather than the spaces in which those policies and programmes exist, like the power to establish different employability programmes. Some of the detail within the bits of the Bill with which we're familiar will mean that the Scottish Parliament will be more constrained than we would like in the way that it acts on social security and in the delivery of specific programmes.

4. Abortion

Engender joined twelve other women's and human rights organisations in writing to MPs on Friday to share our concerns about an amendment (new clause 56) on abortion proposed by three members of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Pro-Life.

The Smith Commission contained an agreement from all parties that they were minded to devolve abortion, but wanted to have further discussion between Governments on some of the implications of that. This amendment would bring forward the timescales, in a way that the anti-Choice lobby is clear would be to their advantage. Abortion is relatively unexplored terrain in Scotland, and women's organisations are very concerned that we have time and capacity to make an effective case for a more progressive, pro-choice law to the people of Scotland.

5. Access to justice: tribunal fees

The introduction of employment tribunal fees has had a calamitous impact on women seeking redress because they have been discriminated against at work. In May we hosted a guest blog from employment lawyer Jillian Merchant, which highlighted the 91% reduction in sex discrimination cases after the fee regime kicked off.

Ian Murray's (Lab) amendment on this would require Scottish Ministers to work with ACAS and business to remove fees in Scotland. An SNP amendment would devolve employment tribunals and fees entirely to the Scottish Parliament.

Update: An additional amendment was added last night by Ian Murray. New clause 64 would devolve equalities enforcement powers to Scotland. Labour intend that this would give the Scottish Parliament the power to determine the enforcement powers of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland, among other things.

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Photo credit: Scottish Parliament debating chamber by Ian Britton, used under the terms of a Creative Commons License

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