The Equality Bill: What does it mean?

The Equality Bill was published by the Government on 27 April 2009. It is hoped that once it becomes law, the Bill will “… make Britain stronger, fairer and more equal.” John Moore explains more...

24/02/2010

Background

The UK’s current discrimination laws are spread across a patchwork of parliamentary acts and regulations.  Consequently, the Bill will fulfil two objectives:

(1) Harmonise and restate existing discrimination laws in plain English; and

(2) Reinforce the law and strengthen progress towards equality.

How will this be achieved?

Click here to view the Equality Bill.

The Bill currently spans 210 clauses and 28 schedules.  The Bill draws together the attributes that are protected under existing discrimination laws and classifies these as “protected characteristics”, namely; age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

The Bill defines each of these “protected characteristics” in greater detail.  Generally, the definitions of these characteristics are broadly similar to those found under existing legislation though there are several striking differences.

Age

The Bill outlaws discrimination based on age.  However, it also goes further and also protects against discrimination directly related to membership of an age group.  This would catch broad restrictions including, for example, those limiting employment to individuals over 40.

Gender Reassignment

The gender reassignment definition included within the Bill is modelled on the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. One important change is the removal of the requirement that the gender reassignment took place or is taking place under medical supervision.  This will benefit individuals who live in the opposite gender without actually receiving medical treatment.

Race

Under the Race Relations Act 1976, the terms, racial groups and racial grounds are currently defined by reference to colour, race, nationality, ethnic or national origin only.  In contrast, the Bill frames race as including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins.

This leaves open the possibility that other attributes could be construed as being racial.  While Employment Tribunals have always given a liberal interpretation to race, employers should remain sensitive to cultural characteristics in light of the wording of the Bill.

Forms of Conduct Prohibited

A person possessing a protected characteristic can complain if they are treated less favourably than their employer would treat another employee, not possessing the characteristic. This is known as “direct discrimination”.  While the Bill recasts the definition of direct discrimination across all protected characteristics, as is the case currently there are still some quirks which are specific to a particular protected characteristic that should be noted:

  1. Age – A respondent can escape liability if it can rationalise its discriminatory treatment on the basis that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate end.  This means that the respondent must be able to demonstrate that there was an objectively justifiable reason for the treatment.
  2. Disability – It is possible for a respondent to treat a disabled individual more favourably than a person without a disability without incurring liability under the Bill.
  3. Marriage / Civil Partnership Status – Discrimination under this head can only arise by a claimant actually being a civil partner or married; the Bill will not provide protection for discrimination by association or perception.
  4. Race – A person may complain of racial discrimination if they are segregated from other individuals on the basis of their ethnicity.  This is in contrast to other protected characteristics, (for example, sex) under which segregation cannot amount to less favourable treatment.
  5. Sex – Women who are breast-feeding are given express protection under the Bill.  Additionally, it is not open to a male claimant to complain against special treatment given to women in connection with pregnancy and childbirth.

The Bill also proscribes other forms of conduct.  Less favourable treatment attributable to a combination of protected characteristics is similarly prohibited.  Interestingly only two protected characteristics can be relied upon to bring a claim for “combined discrimination” though it is the intention that this will still help to protect individuals that remain marginalised by their protected characteristics.

Indirect discrimination is also harmonised across all protected characteristics (indirect pregnancy-related discrimination falling under sex discrimination).  A respondent would be guilty of indirect discrimination by adopting a discriminatory provision, criterion or practice.  However, if the respondent can point to an objective justification for this then it may avoid liability.

Positive Duty to Promote Equality

The first clause of the Bill includes a provision requiring public authorities to consider the reduction of inequalities arising from socio-economic disadvantage when making “strategic decisions”.  A wide range of authorities are subject to this duty including councils, Strategic Health Authorities and Primary Care Trusts.

This represents a shift from existing equality laws towards a proactive system which promotes positive action to tackle discrimination.  However, authorities bound by the provision need only have “due regard” to this objective.  Finally, breach of this duty will not expose authorities to private claims.

Summary

The Equality Bill seeks to provide welcome consolidation of existing anti-discrimination legislation and go some way towards achieving real equality.  The Bill introduces a number of key changes to the legislative framework which are of particular relevance to employers as highlighted above.

It is also possible further additions will be made as the Bill progresses through Parliament and we will keep you informed.

Back to top

Keep up to date With Bevan Brittan

What interests you?

About you?

You can view our privacy policy here