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Sex bias complaints rise by 200%: Acas handles 2,000 discrimination cases from women in armed forces

SEX discrimination claims handled by Acas, the conciliation service, have increased by 200 per cent over the last two years, many of them involving the Ministry of Defence.

The armed forces were the subject of 2,000 complaints from women not allowed to resume work after pregnancy and who were claiming compensation, according to the annual report of Acas, published yesterday.

Some of the MoD cases involved complaints originating 14 years ago which were submitted on behalf of two women by the Equal Opportunities Commission after legal action. The first case was settled out of court, but the Ministry subsequently changed its rules. Some 6,000 sex discrimination cases were received by Acas last year - an increase of 67 per cent on 1991. The report also shows an increase in the number of women alleging sexual harassment at work.

The document reveals that the Government has insisted on a radical change in the terms of reference of Acas. Its constitution will continue to refer to its function of improving industrial relations, but the reference to the 'extension, development and reform of collective bargaining' should be expunged. The Employment Bill, currently going through the Commons, will introduce the new constitution and will be seen as another attempt to marginalise unions.

The report also refers to a 'reserve power' which would enable Acas to charge for its services. The Acas council, which oversees its activities, is anxious that, while its conferences and publications might be included in the new rule, its role as an industrial peacemaker should remain free.

Officials at Acas received calls from workers every 15 seconds of the working day last year as the recession led to a record number of employment problems.

The highest number of cases involved claims for unfair dismissal, which rose by 12 per cent to 44,000.