HOT ISSUE: Does the voluntary sector do enough to promote equality?

Voluntary organisations have been criticised for failing to achieve diversity in their workforces. A recent survey found that some of the large disability charities have a low proportion of disabled staff while the Commission for Racial Equality has accused the third sector of marginalising race issues.

SAM MERCER, campaign director, The Employers Forum on Age

NO

The number of calls the Employers Forum on Age receives from charity-sector employees and volunteers who feel they have been discriminated against because of their age is very worrying. The fact that there is no legislation as yet to protect workers from age discrimination means there is little that we can do to help.

The not-for-profit sector relies to a great extent on the goodwill of volunteers. Employees and volunteers expect charities to operate at the forefront of best practice but many are risking their reputations by poor HR practice and sometimes out and out discriminatory policies.

Age discrimination will be illegal in 2006. The voluntary sector must catch up with leading employers which are already preparing for the legislation, otherwise they will continue to struggle to recruit the skills they need. Costly grievance and tribunal claims are not limited to other sectors, so let's hope the voluntary sector will be ready.

KRISHNA SARDA, chief executive, Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations

NO

The voluntary sector is not pursuing the equality agenda with sufficient vigour and commitment. We can judge the voluntary sector's record on equality against objective yardsticks. Any organisation that is seriously pursuing equal opportunities needs to focus on how it treats its employees and its service delivery.

According to Cabinet Office research, 10 per cent of people in the voluntary sector are from ethnic minorities. However, many large charities are not extending opportunity in their workforce policies. Ultimately, it is outcomes rather than processes that matter. Many voluntary organisations use ethnic monitoring for recruitment. However, when I look at the composition of senior management in many voluntary organisations, not a single ethnic minority face is present.

When we see charity trustees holding chief executives to account for not delivering on the equality agenda, we will know that the voluntary sector is leading the way on this issue.

WANDA SPOONER, director of human resources, Centrepoint

YES

Unequivocally, the answer has to be yes. Equality and diversity are the cornerstones of voluntary sector values with regards to service delivery and, therefore, it stands to reason that it should also be true of our employment practice.

The voluntary sector has evolved its values with regard to equality over decades. It has led the way in best recruitment practice, equal pay, staff training and development and family-friendly policies. We do not need the legislative stick to enforce equality in the workplace; it's there because we fundamentally believe in it. Its practice has become imbedded in our organisational culture.

Family-friendly initiatives are nothing new to the voluntary sector. At Centrepoint, enhanced maternity leave, paid adoption and paternity leave and time off for family emergencies have long been important elements in our employment conditions for all of our staff.

Racist, sexist and homophobic language and behaviour were tackled and outlawed years ago in the voluntary sector. They are simply not tolerated anymore.

GARY ALESSIO, director, Consortium of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Voluntary and Community Organisations

NO

It is a difficult question and it's hard to generalise. There are some brilliant examples but others are awful.

Many organisations were formed as a reaction against inequality, so diversity issues are often central to their aims. However, I think we often take too narrow a view of equality, with each faction arguing its case and not making enough links between compatible interest groups.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) communities are still pretty low in the hierarchy of equality issues and still too invisible in the sector. Too often, it's those LGB staff who have to take a risk and push the issue forward. However, there are many examples of good practice, and anti-discrimination legislation later this year means that LGB people will have some protection in employment for the first time. Organisational culture change will inevitably follow.

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