The new Equality Bill (the Bill) was published in May. The Bill is intended to harmonise discrimination law, by condensing the existing nine major pieces of legislation into a single act, and strengthen the law to support progress on equality. The Bill will have important implications for public authorities and employers but also suppliers of goods and services. This short summary focuses on the impact that the Bill will have on such suppliers.

The Bill prohibits discrimination, harassment and victimisation by suppliers of services, goods and facilities in respect of provision of the services, goods and facilities and the terms on which such services, goods and facilities are provided. The definition of a service provider under the Bill is “a person concerned with the provision of a service to the public or a section of the public, whether or not for payment”. As such the Bill will apply to both private bodies and voluntary organisations. The prohibitions under the Bill relate to certain “protected characteristics”. These characteristics are; age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.  

Meaning of discrimination, harassment and victimisation  

Discrimination includes both direct and indirect discrimination. Direct discrimination occurs where a person is treated less favourably than another because of a protected characteristic. Indirect discrimination occurs when a policy which is applied to everybody in the same way particularly disadvantages people with a protected characteristic.  

The Bill envisages three types of harassment:  

  1. harassment involving unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant or violating the complainant’s dignity (although this does not apply to the protected characteristics of pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership);
  1. sexual harassment involving unwanted conduct of a sexual nature where this has the same purpose or effect as above; and  
  1. treating someone less favourably than another because they have either submitted or failed to submit to sexual harassment or harassment related to sex or gender.  

Victimisation occurs where one person treats another badly because they, in good faith, have taken or supported any action taken for the purposes of the Bill.  

What is new?  

Although current legislation provides certain protection against discrimination or harassment in the provision of services, the treatment is not uniform for the different types of protected characteristics. The Bill seeks to provide a generally uniform approach to all the protected characteristics.  

Inclusion of age as a protected characteristic is a significant addition, as there is currently no protection against age discrimination outside of employment and vocational training. The Bill provides that it will be unlawful to discriminate against someone aged 18 or over when providing a service, including the provision of financial services and insurance.  

Time frame  

Implementation will be phased to allow service providers sufficient time to address the practical and organisational issues that may arise.  

It is expected that the Bill will enter into the Commons Committee Stage in June 2009 and reach the House of Lords at the beginning of the new parliamentary session. Subject to the approval of both Houses it is expected to receive royal assent in early 2010.  

Comment  

Although most suppliers will never fall foul of the provisions of this legislation when it comes into force, they should be aware of the legislative developments impacting on their sphere of business.