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What the Proposed Changes to the UK Equality Law Mean to You

Jul 31, 2008
Last week, Harriet Harman announced new equality laws to tackle widespread discrimination. Under these new plans, age discrimination would be removed from all aspects of society, and further changes would be made to prevent workplaces from discriminating against minorities. There is also room for 'positive action' that allows business to hire women or minorities without fear of legal action if the candidates are equal in terms of ability.

But how do these changes to the equality law differ from how we act now?

What is actually so different?

The main points of the proposed bill are that:

- Business will be allowed to discriminate in favour of ethnicities and genders underrepresented in their place of work if interview candidates were of equal ability.

- Clauses in contracts that prevent staff discussing their wages with colleagues will be scrapped.

- Age discrimination laws will be widened to encompass the world outside the workplace.

There are also proposals on the table to make public bodies publish the pay gap within their organizations.

Why is the new system being introduced?

The new discrimination laws are being proposed in order to make a more balanced workforce in Britain, hence employers will be able to discriminate in favour of one group ahead of another given two equally matched candidates to diversify their work environment (contrary to tabloid implication, this actually works both ways, and a predominantly female office would be allowed to discriminate in favour of a male candidate).

The section affecting the wages of companies is being included to try and reduce the massive pay gap between men and women on business contracts. Although the gap has narrowed in recent years according to official figures, on average women still only earn 87p for every 1 that men earn. One of the statistics that Harriet Harman has used is that female part-time workers earn up to 40% less than their full time male counterparts. By making companies more open about their wage structures, it is hoped that the gap will close naturally.

Finally, the laws affecting age are aimed at tackling the discrimination people feel based on their age in their daily lives.

Isn't discriminating against age already illegal?

While workplace age discrimination has been legislated against since 2006, the proposed new equality laws are intended to tackle wider forms of ageism. This is planned to tackle the often costly discrimination that pensioners face in their daily life, from high insurance premiums to doctors putting illnesses down to their age and refusing treatment.

What are the main caveats of the new law?

The important things to bear in mind when thinking on the prospective changes are:

- Firms may be forced to publish pay rates

- Positive action is only an option in interviews where candidates are equally matched and will not be compulsory in any event.

- Some areas will likely be exempt from the age discrimination laws, such as free bus passes for the elderly and holidays for the over 50s and 18-30s.

Given the uproar that's been made against the positive action section of the bill, it's not guaranteed that every part of the bill will ever become law. Even if it does become law, it's almost impossible to put a stop of workplace discrimination, because you can't know with any certainty what an employer's reason for passing over a candidate is. For most of us, this legislation will mean very little to our business contracts, and we can carry on picking the best candidate for the job regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or age.
About the Author
Iain Mackintosh is the managing director of Simply-Docs. The firm provides over 1100 business contracts covering all aspects of business from holiday entitlement to non-disclosure agreements. By providing these legal documents (with content provided by leading commercial lawyers, HR and health & safety consultants) at an affordable price, the company intends to help small businesses avoid costly breaches of regulation and legal action.
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