The Government has finally published its long awaited Equality Bill which harmonises and strengthens the current laws on discrimination.
The Equality Bill is a major piece of legislation which not only brings together and harmonises all strands of discrimination law but also extends the scope of existing laws and seeks to tackle the gender pay gap and 'socio economic inequalities' ( i.e. 'class' differences).
However the Bill is still subject to public consultation and Parliamentary approval and therefore is not expected to become law until Spring 2010 at the earliest.
Some of the key proposals in the Equality Bill will:
- Introduce the concept of "protected characteristics" which will cover age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
- Harmonise the concepts of harassment, direct and indirect discrimination across all protected characteristics.
- Extend protection relating to discrimination by 'association' (where people are discriminated against because they associate with persons with protected characteristics).
- Extend protection relating to discrimination against people who are "perceived" to have protected characteristics.
- Provide for harassment to catch conduct that "relates to" protected characteristics.
- Extend protection for employees suffering harassment by a third party (for example, a customer) if that harassment has occurred on at least 2 occasions and the employer has failed to take reasonably practicable steps to prevent it.
- Respond to the decision of the House of Lords in Malcolm v London Borough of Lewisham (which weakened protection from "disability related" discrimination) by making it unlawful to treat a disabled person in a particular way which, because of their disability is to their detriment, unless that treatment can be justified.
- Allow Employment Tribunals to make recommendations in discrimination cases which benefit the whole workforce and not just the individual employee who has brought the claim.
- Ban 'secrecy clauses' in contracts of employment which prevent employees from discussing their pay with colleagues.
- Give a new power to require private sector employers with at least 250 employees to publish information about the difference in pay between their male and female employees ( 'the gender pay gap'). However the government has stated it will not use this power until 2013 in the hope that large employers will voluntarily publish details of any gender pay gap within their organisation.
- Widen the general public sector equality duty imposed on public bodies such as local authorities and NHS trusts to cover all protected characteristics and to take into account 'socio economic' factors when making decisions about their service delivery.