Equal Opportunities Commission urges new sex equality law

In November 1998, the Equal Opportunities Commission published proposals for the reform of British sex equality laws. These are now under consideration by the government.

The UK's Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has made proposals to the Government for the replacement of the existing Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and Equal Pay Act 1970 by a single new Sex Equality Act. In a document entitled Equality in the 21st Century: A new sex equality law for Britain, published on 5 November 1998, the EOC says that the new statute should be based on the principle of equal treatment, should guarantee freedom from discrimination on grounds of sex, pregnancy, marital status, family status and gender reassignment, and should take account of developments in European Community law.

Among other proposals, the EOC calls for new provisions which would:

  • define direct and indirect discrimination, the latter based on the provisions of the EC Directive (97/80/EC) on the burden of proof in discrimination cases;
  • clearly prohibit sexual harassment, using the European Commission's definition;
  • introduce 10 days' statutory paternity leave, paid at the current rate of statutory maternity pay;
  • require employers to monitor their workforce in terms of gender, job title or grade and rates of pay at least annually, and to make this information available to employees and employee representatives;
  • allocate discrimination cases to employment tribunal chairs who are specialists in discrimination law; and
  • extend the range of remedies available in sex discrimination cases to include orders for reinstatement, re-engagement, appointment or promotion as appropriate.

The EOC has a statutory duty under the Sex Discrimination Act to review the effectiveness of the legislation and suggest improvements. The Commission's proposals differ in certain respects from those in an earlier consultation document it issued in January 1998. For example, the EOC is no longer proposing that the new Sex Equality Act should cover discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Instead, it proposes that there should be legal protection against discrimination for lesbians and gay men but that the government should consult on the best way to achieve this.

The Government responded cautiously to the EOC's proposals. In a statement, the education and employment secretary, David Blunkett, said that "some of the recommendations have far-reaching consequences and will need to studied in detail throughout government before we respond."

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