UK backs positive discrimination

Equal opportunities: Ministers agree to European measure that contradicts fundamental principle of British law
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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT has quietly signed up to a European accord allowing "positive discrimination" rather than equal treatment for women and members of ethnic minorities. Ministers have agreed the measure, which contradicts a fundamental principle of British equal opportunities law.

At the moment legislation in the United Kingdom forbids the use of such methods to improve the lot of victims of discrimination, partly on the ground that it would antagonise the rest of the population.

After prolonged negotiations late last year, the Government signed the Amsterdam Treaty, which allows positive discrimination and is due to be ratified by Parliament early next year.

Confirming long-standing plans for a radical extension of anti-discrimination law yesterday, the Equal Opportunities Commission urged ministers to consider how positive discrimination might become part of British law. Kamlesh Bahl, the commission's departing chairwoman, said positive discrimination might be applied in any field where women or men were under-represented. Launching the recommendation for a complete overhaul of legislation, Ms Bahl called for a "super law" to replace a whole raft of confusing and complicated equality statutes.

In its report, Equality in the 21st Century: A New Sex Equality Law For Britain, the Government was urged to force companies to monitor the relative status and earnings of men and women in their organisations to ensure fair treatment.

Penalties for ignoring the law should be similar to that available under national minimum wage legislation, which can include imprisonment where contempt of court is involved.

The commission called for legislation to ban sexual harassment - the concept is undefined in British law. It is also seeking explicit protection for gays, lesbians and those undergoing "gender reassignment".

Under the new legal regime, the alleged discriminator would have to prove the legitimacy of his or her practices, rather than those who are claiming unfair treatment.

Public bodies would also have a new responsibility to eliminate discrimination and promote equality. They should be required to publish details of their programmes and progress in annual reports, and should ensure that their contractors comply with the law.

Under the proposals, the armed forces would no longer be able to rely on the concept of "combat effectiveness" for turning down applications from women. Military officers would be forced to define the exact nature of the qualifications required and the fairness of their decisions would be judged on that basis. The commission feels that the present law constitutes a "catch-all" for those who seek to keep women out of the services.

The new law would also stop sporting teams of school age preventing girls from playing.

While all-male and all- female private social clubs would remain lawful, mixed-sex clubs would be prevented from offering inferior facilities to one gender. Golf clubs would be unable, for instance, to set aside unpopular playing times for women members.

One of the principal aims of the document is to cut short the legal process. Litigation at employment tribunals has been known to last more than 10 years with the result failing to form a legal precedent.

The proposed legislation would replace current equal pay and sex discrimination law, much of which is 30 years old.