Equality Bill to 'make Britain fairer'

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Nine major laws and 100 other regulations will be replaced by a single Equality Bill which the Government pledged will strengthen discrimination legislation and tackle the gender pay gap, it was announced today.

Harriet Harman, minister for women and equality, said the economic downturn would not hold back the "tough" new measures, which include powers to ban discrimination against older people in the provision of goods and services.

The Bill will ban "secrecy clauses" so workers can compare their wages and challenge employers who unlawfully pay them less.

The move is aimed at tackling the gender pay gap, which the Government estimates is 21 per cent when the wages of full and part-time women workers are compared with men.

Almost a quarter of firms ban their staff from talking about their pay, with women more likely to be in the dark about wage rates, the Government said.

Public bodies will have to report on any pay inequalities, while ministers will look at how the £175bn spent by the public sector on British businesses can be used to deliver more transparency over pay.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission will conduct a series of inquiries into pay, starting in the financial services sector, which has a gender pay gap of 41 per cent, and the construction industry, where ethnic minorities represent just 2.5 per cent of workers, compared with 8 per cent in other parts of the economy, it was announced.

Positive action on employing staff will be "entirely optional", but as long as candidates are equally suitable and there is evidence of under-representation, the Bill will allow employers to appoint someone from a group that is under-represented in their workforce.

For example, a primary school may want to increase the number of male teachers who act as role models to young boy pupils.

Ms Harman said: "This Government is unconditionally committed to equality. We're not going to put it on the back burner just because times are difficult. Fairness and equality are enduring principles of basic human dignity, and fairness doesn't cost anything.

"Equality is not only important for the individual, but for society and the economy. If there are unequal societies marred by prejudice and discrimination, then people feel excluded, communities feel resentful, and you don't have a society which is at ease with itself.

"Equality is vital for a modern economy, so that nobody is excluded and it can draw on the widest possible pool of talent, with everybody contributing. That's why we will bring forward our tough new Equality Bill to make Britain fairer."

The Bill, which will cover Britain, will replace the Equal Pay Act, Sex Discrimination Act, Race Relations Act, Disability Discrimination Act and other pieces of legislation dating back 40 years.

Dave Prentis, leader of Unison, said: "The Bill is a vital piece of legislation and should be used to lay the groundwork for real fairness and equality for the 21st century.

"It will introduce important steps towards a fairer workplace, but it is disappointing that it misses a very real opportunity to make changes to the law that would deliver equal pay and cut out the need for lengthy legal action.

"The current equality laws are too complex, too weak and ineffective. Thousands of working women will still be short-changed because of the gender pay gap."

Jackie Orme, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: "While we welcome the simplification and clarification of existing discrimination legislation, the Government must be under no illusions that this will solve the problem on its own.

"Government should ensure new regulations are supported by clear, practical and user-friendly guidance for employers which promotes the business case for diversity."