Equality Bill Looks For Fair Play

Fergal Dowling Column For The Jeweller

06.07.2009


The Equality Bill for Great Britain was announced in the Queen’s Speech of December 2008 and introduced before Parliament in April 2009.

The Bill is intended to simplify and unify the current 116 pieces of legislation in a single equality duty. These include:

  • The Equal Pay Act 1970
  • The Sex Discrimination Act 1975
  • The Race Relations Act 1976
  • The Disability Discrimination Act 1995
  • The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003
  • The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003
  • The Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006
  • The Equality Act 2006
  • The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

It is hoped that the process will result in the enhancement of protection against discrimination not omission. The overarching objective of the Equality Bill is to create a fairer environment, where individuals will have the opportunity to achieve success, irrespective of race, nationality, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief.

The new legislation will require public bodies to take into consideration the diverse needs and requirements of their workforce, and those communities they serve, when drawing up employment policies and when planning services. It will also have the objective of making public bodies more transparent, reflecting the view that if inequality remains hidden, it is difficult to measure it, address it and make progress.

Employment tribunals will be expected to do more to tackle unlawful discrimination. They will have to put forward recommendations to employers on their working practices which are to be of benefit to their wider workforces, and not solely the person who made the original claim, who may no longer be with the company.

Positive action measures will be extended to encourage and facilitate employers in making their companies or organisations more representative and reflective of the people they serve. Public body employers may well be expected to provide documentation - upon request - to underline what steps they have taken in relation to ensuring that their recruitment process complies with the expectations of the Equality Bill.

The topics, which have arguably been the areas of greatest discussion around water-coolers, are age discrimination and gender equality. Age discrimination in the workplace has been illegal since 2006. It is illegal to use the grounds of age to refuse employment, training, opportunity of promotion, offer adverse terms and conditions or compulsorily retire an employee before the default retirement age of 65 or a company's traditional retirement age or dismiss them.

The Equality Bill is expected to tackle more widespread forms of age-related prejudice and focus not just upon the workplace but also the provision of goods and services. The law, for example, would stop insurance companies refusing life insurance or holiday cover to senior citizens or charging more on the basis of their age. In addition, medical practitioners will not be allowed to refuse treatment for pensioners on the grounds of their age, rather it will be necessary to evidence clinical reasons for so doing.

Turning to gender equality, employers may have to publish salaries to avoid the pitfall of female members of staff receiving a lower amount than their male counterparts. It has not been unknown for employees to sometimes find that their contracts of employment prohibited them from comparing details of their remuneration with colleagues and peers. This will be rendered illegal, so allowing for more open discussion of salaries and potential unmasking of those organisations that continue to flout the rules.

Opportunities for employers to unwittingly be faced with charges of discrimination extend from the recruitment process to when employees leave their employment. Looking at the recruitment process, employers should follow some simple steps, for example:

  • Ensure the recruitment advertisement does not suggest that an individual of a certain age is sought, e.g. candidate must have at least ten years' experience
  • Draw up a shortlist comparing candidate details with the required criteria; consider concealing details which may indicate gender, race, age and so on
  • Don't put questions during interview which may be construed as discriminatory, e.g. ask interviewees about their sexual orientation
  • Do not deploy tests – practical, psychometric etc - which discriminate against candidates on grounds of disability, race or gender

Enforcement of legislation on race, religion, gender, transgender status, sexual orientation, disability and age will come within the province of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), which replaced the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Disability Rights Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality in 2007.

The CEHR has specified some measures businesses should instigate:

  • Board level appointment of an Equality Champion
  • Annual reports to include data on equality
  • Risk assessments to consider equality deficits
  • Leverage of procurement policies to arrive at greater equality

Bosses must make sure that their houses are in order from equal opportunity policies, advertisements, application forms, job specifications, the interview process, appraisals to pay and benefit structures. They must also be able to demonstrate that they are not practicing unjustifiable discrimination or that they are taking actions to eliminate it.

Employers should appreciate that the Bill is not bad news in terms of additional bureaucracy, rather they should consider the opportunities offered by embracing diversity in the workplace.