Liz Truss has branded race, sexuality and gender issues as “tools of the left” in an overhaul of the government’s equalities brief, claiming they “do nothing to fix systems”.
But her speech comes just a day after it was revealed the gender pay gap has significantly widened at the Department for International Trade (DIT) which she heads.
Under Truss, women earn on average 15.9% less than their male counterparts. Three years earlier the gap stood at 2.7%.
On Thursday, Truss laid out a “Conservative values” approach based on “freedom, choice, opportunity, and individual humanity and dignity”, in a speech titled The New Fight for Fairness.
Truss said the “narrow focus on protected characteristics” set out by the 2010 Equality Act – age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion, sex and sexual orientation – has led to a “narrowing of the equality debate that overlooks socio-economic status and geographic inequality”.
She called for the equality debate to be “led by facts, not by fashion”.
Speaking at the right-leaning Centre for Policy Studies think tank, she added: “This means some issues – particularly those facing white working-class children – have been neglected.”
Labour has slammed the growing divide at the DIT, saying it “raises serious questions” about the government’s commitment to close the gender pay gap when Truss’s department is “clearly going backwards”.
The gap in the DIT, which Truss took over in July last year, has widened every year since the first report in 2017, when the mean stood at 3.6%.
Under Truss, the mean rose to 6.5% in 2020, while the median increased to 15.9% from 2.7% three years earlier.
The mean bonus pay gap has also gone from 14.4% in favour of women in 2017 to 7.3% in favour of men in 2020, PA Media reports.
A DIT spokeswoman said the department had hired more women than men over the past year but claimed the gap was widened due to the “overall distribution of women across (pay) grades”.
But shadow women and equalities secretary Marsha de Cordova said: “It raises serious questions about the government’s commitment to closing the gender pay gap when the department run by the minister for women and equalities is so clearly going backwards when it comes to average pay and bonuses.”
Felicia Willow, chief executive of the Fawcett Society women’s rights charity, said there is a “real risk” the gender pay gap will widen across the country when the impacts of the pandemic are fully realised.
“To help push against that tide, employers need to take decisive action. The Department for International Trade has set out a proactive plan on its pay gap – they will need to explore the reasons for this negative change and adjust that plan accordingly,” she said.
“But government has a vital wider role to play. The Fawcett Society is keen to see gender pay gap reporting reinstated urgently, extended to all employers of 100 employees or more and to cover ethnicity, and to require all employers, not just government departments, to take action.”