Guidance on equality regulations too 'complex' for smaller firms

A document drawn up to help small firms comply with regulations that will be introduced under the new Equality Act could end up defeating its own objectives.

The Forum of Private Business (FPB) claimed that the guidance, which has been put together by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), is intended to be simple and straightforward.

But at 300 pages in length, the FPB warned that many small businesses will struggle to make sense of their new obligations.

As well as its length, the document, the FPB went on to say, is couched in parts in phrasing that 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 intention of the new Act is to bring together existing anti-discrimination laws, and many of its provisions are due to come into effect in October, with the remainder to be phased in over the following three years.

In a letter to the equality watchdog's Chairman, Trevor Phillips, the FPB's chief executive Phil Orford voiced concerns that the guidance accompanying the Act appears to have been drawn up with only large businesses in mind.

Mr Orford wrote: "Much of the content 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's letter also argued that the guidance seems ambiguous in a number of key areas and is inconsistent in its use of language.

Mr Orford continued: "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."

The FPB's worry is that the potential confusion the guidance could produce among smaller firms may lead to further costs as businesses either over-comply with the legislation or are forced to pay tribunal claims for failing to meet the rules.

Calling for clearer guidance to be issued, Mr Orford concluded: "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."