Law: Why gender must be top of the agenda

Our Learned Friend
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE been chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission for five years and have had the privilege of taking part in many outstanding projects. But I believe Equality in the 21st Century may be among the most important tasks in the EOC's history.

In previous years we have carried out extensive reviews of existing legislation, but our recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. Proposals that we made in 1988 and 1990 were simply ignored.

In the meantime we have seen the existing legislation - the Sex Discrimination Act and Equal Pay Act - lag further and further behind reality. We have seen court and tribunal cases drag on and on without resolution.

The vast majority of people in this country believe that progress is needed.

No one seriously thinks that sexual harassment, unequal pay or unfair treatment are right. But our experience has shown that the complexity and confusion of the present laws are likely to hurt rather than help future progress.

In 1997 we began the process of assembling a set of proposals to change the law. This year we conducted a wide-ranging consultation on our proposals. More than 200 individuals and organisations responded with thoughtful and considered views.

As a society, we need to shift responsibility away from individuals having to fight for their rights and acknowledge that public bodies and employers must take the lead.

Employers, for example, must take a proactive approach to equal pay: reviewing pay systems, adopting equal pay policies and making sure their employees know the results of those reviews.

We believe employers should be required to give information obtained through monitoring to employees, employees' representatives and the EOC, if it is asked for.

This may sound tough, but the status quo is much worse: legal cases that drag on and on, confusion about the best way forward for the vast majority of employers who want to live up to the law, no ceiling on compensation awards, the cost of bad publicity - there must be a better way.

Our proposals are designed to work in step with impending Government measures. The Minimum Wage Act, the Working Time Directive and other legislation will require employers to properly monitor their workforces. Our suggestion is that gender monitoring be part of that process, not a separate task.

The EOC believes that the state also has a key role in leading the way to change. Our proposals would require public bodies to work towards eliminating unlawful discrimination and to promote equality of opportunity.

The Secretary of State should be required to ensure that all state departments, when collecting and publishing statistics, should break them down by sex.

The new statute should clearly prohibit sexual harassment in employment, education and training and the promotion of goods, facilities or services. Everyone knows that sexual harassment exists, but there is no proper legal definition of what it actually is. We are recommending that new legislation should use the European Commission's definition of sexual harassment.

We have produced a comprehensive approach to updating the existing laws. This is not a menu from which law-makers should pick: it is a structured and balanced set of proposals. We believe we have provided a sound and effective starting point.

Law-making is sometimes seen as a dry and stuffy business, removed from the people the laws will ultimately affect. That must not happen in this case. Sex equality is everybody's business - employers, employees, trade unions, lawyers, Government - everybody.

We have very carefully developed our proposals in clear, non-legal language so that everyone who is interested can see what we are proposing and why. Our report has been awarded the clear English standard.

But the final responsibility lies with the Government. The stated commitment to equal opportunities must now be met with the appropriate action - the creation of a new law that draws on the lessons of the past and looks to the future.

We look forward to the Government's response. This week the Minister for Women released her own agenda. We are pleased to see greater clarity about which issues the minister will be focusing on. We look to her to champion the need for a major change in the legislation that is so urgently needed to achieve real progress for women.

Yes, there is a busy legislative agenda. But which issues are more important than equality? Which issues outweigh sexual harassment, or ensuring people are hired on merit or helping women and men get equal pay for work of equal value?

We have done the research, conducted the consultation and drafted clear and viable proposals. Now, we look to the Government for action.