Ministers decide against major reform of sex equality laws

In July 1999, ministers responded to proposals from the Equal Opportunities Commission for the reform of UK sex equality laws by announcing that the government did not believe that major legislative change was necessary.

On 14 July 1999, ministers at the Department for Education and Employment published their response to proposals made by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) for a new Sex Equality Act to replace the UK's current sex equality legislation (UK9901175N). While announcing action in a number of areas, including some changes to existing legislation, education and employment secretary David Blunkett said that the government "does not believe that major legislative change at this stage is the most effective way of bringing about the changes that are needed".

Instead, the government's "priorities for action" include:

  • consulting on technical changes to make the way equal pay cases are dealt with clearer and simpler;
  • updating UK law to take account of EU developments concerning equal treatment;
  • exploring both legislative and non-legislative options to ensure that public bodies promote equal opportunities for men and women;
  • helping employers and service providers, especially small companies, to meet their current legal obligations through guidance on good practice.

As well as the EOC's recommendations, the government's proposals also take account of a review of anti-discrimination legislation by the Better Regulation Task Force published in May 1999. Whereas the emphasis of the EOC's recommendations was on the amendment of the UK's equality laws, the Better Regulation Task Force concluded that greater awareness of the existing discrimination legislation was required at this stage rather than a major legislative overhaul. It is apparent that this latter view has been influential with ministers.

Outlining the government's proposals, Mr Blunkett said: "Legislation alone cannot change opportunities for men and women. Government can foster change by working in partnership with business, employers, voluntary bodies and working people. We are sensitive to the need to pay particular attention to the needs and stresses of small businesses who do not always have the personnel capacity and expertise that is available in larger companies."

In a statement responding to the government's proposals, the EOC said that the government should "recognise the failure of simple exhortation to bring about fundamental change over the past two decades", and emphasised that public purchasing power should be used to promote equality practices amongst contractors and suppliers.

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