The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), reporting on its first 12 months under the new Labour administration, said it had experienced one of its busiest years, with thousands of people seeking advice.
Kamlesh Bahl, the commission chairwoman, urged ministers to ensure that sex equality was standard throughout government departments. The Government should test all policies to ensure they were not discriminatory, she said.
The commission's annual report pointed out that present legislation did not cover discrimination against trans-sexuals and that there was no law explicitly prohibiting sexual harassment. The report revealed that in 1997 the commission received 626 inquiries about harassment and supported 10 cases at industrial tribunals.
Statutory maternity rights were impossibly complicated and sometimes contradictory, commissioners said. The EOC received as many as 15 calls a week from women who feared they would be dismissed during pregnancy - one of the most frequent complaints received by the commission.
Ms Bahl said that a new sex equality law was badly needed. "The problems and trends we have identified cannot be fixed by tinkering with the old legislation. Radical new solutions are needed to meet the demands of the 21st century." The Sex Discrimination Act and Equal Pay Act were "inconsistent and outdated", according to the commission.
Ms Bahl said: "Society has seen vast changes in attitude and many of the problems we are asked to help with, such as sexual harassment, are not even covered by existing legislation."
The EOC has consulted more than 200 individuals and organisations on the need for a new law.
Overwhelming support was found for a single statute to promote equality, said Ms Bahl. The commission's recommendations will be presented to the Government in the autumn.
The annual report said that more than 25,000 people called the commission for advice last year on issues ranging from pay and employment to advertising and recruitment. The EOC had released a code on equal pay, aimed at reducing the 20 per cent pay gap between women and men. The commission receives nearly 30 calls a week on the issue.
It added that new legislation should address ways to ensure "equal pay for work of equal value". This would aim at streamlining the present system, under which cases can go on for more than a decade.
The report also says equality cannot be "bolted on" to policies and programmes, but has to be built in from the beginning.
The process of bringing measures to promote equality into the mainstream made the drive against discrimination everyone's responsibility - politicians, senior civil servants and front-line staff, the report said.
It held out the new Scottish parliament and national assembly for Wales as "excellent examples".
The strategy had been adopted by a growing number of firms in the private sector because it enabled businesses to make the best use of human resources, it said.Reuse content