Government proposes new anti-discrimination laws

In December 2001, UK ministers launched a consultation exercise on proposals for legislation against discrimination in the workplace on grounds of age, religion and sexual orientation, and amendments to current laws against race and disability discrimination. The new measures are intended to implement recent EU Directives.

On 13 December 2001, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) published a consultation document, Towards equality and diversity, outlining how the government intends to implement the requirements of the EU Directives on equal treatment in employment and occupation (2000/78/EC)(EU0102295F) and race discrimination (2000/43/EC)(EU0006256F), both adopted in 2000. The consultation document sets out proposals for new legislation to prohibit discrimination in work and training on grounds of age, religion and sexual orientation and for amendments to the existing Disability Discrimination and Race Relations Acts.

Key issues on which the government is seeking views include:

  • the definitions of direct and indirect discrimination and harassment to be used in the new legislation;
  • the scope for employers to justify differences in treatment where there are genuine occupational requirements; and
  • establishing a single Equality Commission covering all aspects of discrimination.

The document also raises a number of issues which relate to specific strands of equality legislation, eg the appropriate definition of 'religion' and 'sexual orientation', and what differences in treatment on grounds of age would be justifiable. The exemption of small firms from the Disability Discrimination Act (UK0104127F) will be ended, and other changes made to the Act to meet the requirements of the EU equal treatment in employment and occupation Directive.

Barbara Roche, the minister responsible for equality coordination, said that the government wants 'effective legislation which tackles unfair discrimination without imposing unnecessary burdens on business. But we also want to promote a change in the culture at work. We will be listening carefully to businesses and stakeholders to ensure we get it right.'

A spokesperson for the CBI employers' organisation said that the government's consultation document 'strikes a balance between providing protection for individuals from unfair discrimination and giving employers the flexibility they need to manage their workforce'. The Trades Union Congress congratulated the government on its commitment to enact new anti-discrimination legislation and noted that 'trade unions have long argued for improved equality laws that will extend fairness and basic employment rights. Employers and workers alike will benefit from minimum standards at work.'

The government proposes to prepare draft regulations on race, sexual orientation and religion for implementation during 2003. The amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act will be implemented in October 2004. On age discrimination, the government says that it will need to make full use of the time available under the equal treatment in employment and occupation Directive - until December 2006 - to prepare and introduce new legislation, and will develop more detailed proposals for consultation later in 2002.

Earlier in December 2001, the DTI outlined government action to tackle the gender pay gap (UK0104126F and UK0106134N), including

  • making it easier for women to get information from employers on equal pay issues;
  • developing new reporting requirements for larger companies;
  • encouraging employers to conduct employment and pay reviews covering all aspects of women's employment; and
  • spreading best practice through 'fair pay champions' and new equality awards.

The statement was in response to a recent review of the causes of the gender pay gap conducted by Denise Kingsmill, deputy chair of the Competition Commission.

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