Equality Bill to include new employment measures

In June 2008, the UK government announced further details of its plans for a new Equality Bill. These consist of provisions to promote equality in employment, including measures seeking to highlight the pay gap between men and women and to promote positive action in recruitment. Furthermore, the equality duty for public bodies will be extended. The social partner organisations have broadly welcomed the proposals.

On 26 June 2008, the Minister for Women and Equality, Harriet Harman, who is also the ruling Labour Party’s deputy leader, made a statement to the House of Commons, setting out the main themes of the Equality Bill which the government intends to introduce during the next session of parliament. On the same day, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) published a document, entitled Framework for a fairer future – the Equality Bill (1.04Mb PDF), which outlined the steps that the government proposes to take to ‘de-clutter and strengthen’ the UK’s equality legislation. These include a number of new measures seeking to promote equality in employment.

The GEO is a new self-standing government department, whose mission is to ‘put equality at the heart of government’. It is responsible for the government’s overall strategy on equality, as well as leading on women’s issues across government; the GEO is also the sponsoring department for the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Objectives of Equality Bill

The Equality Bill aims to bring together all previous anti-discrimination legislation into a single statute. As well as consolidating existing measures, the bill is also set to be the vehicle for a range of new provisions, including a number of measures relating directly to inequalities in the area of employment.

Key employment-related proposals

The main proposals relating to equality in employment include the following:

  • a new equality duty for public bodies – this will bring together the three existing equality duties concerning race, disability and gender (UK0703019I), as well as extending this duty to gender reassignment, age, sexual orientation and religion or belief;
  • improved transparency among public sector employers – this will be achieved by reporting on inequalities in terms of the gender pay gap and the employment of ethnic minority and disabled staff;
  • use of public procurement – the bill seeks to encourage equality measures by private sector contractors tendering for public works;
  • abolishment of secrecy clauses – to counter gender pay discrimination, secrecy clauses used by some employers to prevent employees from discussing what they earn will be outlawed;
  • equality reporting – the government will work with the private sector to improve transparency through equality reporting, with legislation on the issue being introduced as a possible fallback;
  • positive action in relation to underrepresented groups – employers will be allowed to take positive action when selecting between two equally qualified job applicants to take account of underrepresented groups in the workforce, such as women and people from ethnic minority communities;
  • wider recommendations in discrimination cases – employment tribunals will be allowed to make wider recommendations in cases of discrimination, going beyond the individual taking the case and applying to the rest of the workforce;
  • progress on ‘representative actions’ in discrimination law – the government will also consider how to proceed with introducing representative actions (UK0711029I) in discrimination law, to allow trade unions, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and other bodies to pursue cases on behalf of a group of people who have been discriminated against.

The government plans to publish more comprehensive proposals for the Equality Bill shortly, including its response to a public consultation on the issue carried out in 2007.

Reactions of social partners

The General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Brendan Barber, described the proposed Equality Bill as ‘a landmark piece of legislation which, if implemented fully, will help millions of people to reach their potential at work’. He added that:

Beefing up the equality duties to include all major forms of discrimination will give unions the tools they need to deliver real equality where it really matters – on the shop floor. Using [public] procurement to promote equality should also have a major impact on the private sector, where the gender pay gap is nearly nine percentage points higher.

The Deputy Director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), John Cridland, commented:

Business supports moves to promote equality, and the UK already has some of the strictest anti-discrimination laws anywhere in the world. So, the government’s plans rightly concentrate on non-legal means of moving forward on equality – such as better use of public procurement and promoting positive action – and the CBI welcomes this.

However, Mr Cridland added that:

Unlawful discrimination in the private sector is not the main reason why inequalities still exist. The issues are cultural, educational and occupational . . . Mandatory equal pay audits or mandatory disclosure of meaningless statistics should not be part of the government’s plans.

Mark Hall, IRRU, University of Warwick

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