Work: Wanted: a tough new law to promote women

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The Independent Online
The Blair government was yesterday challenged to introduce a `super law' aimed at giving women a fast track to equality. Barrie Clement, Labour Editor, explains that ministers and employers may want to temper justice with considerations of cost and potential conflict.

The Equal Opportunities Commission yesterday called for a tough new law which could force employers to promote women where they had been the victims of discrimination.

Under the proposals, industrial tribunals could also demand that women were taken back into jobs where they proved they were dismissed because of gender bias.

In a report issued as part of a three-month consultation exercise, the commission argues that employers should be ordered to continue to pay compensation as long as they refuse to take corrective action. At the moment, tribunals can only order a "one-off" payment to the aggrieved party.

While employers may contend that such a law would constitute a considerable burden and lead to conflict at the workplace, the Government may prevaricate over the EOC's main proposal for legislation, which it wants to be introduced during this parliament. It is demanding a single "equal treatment" Act which would give women a fast track to equality. Given that women's earnings are just 80 per cent of men's, such legislation could lead to claims worth billions and ministers may feel the need to phase in such a provision.

Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the commission, said legislation was a "mess and a nightmare", with more than a dozen British laws plus European directives. There was an urgent need for a review and a major overhaul, she said.

In some cases, it took more than a decade for women to claim equal pay and with pregnancy and maternity statutes were complicated and contradictory and were a disincentive to the employment of women.

The commission's chairwoman argued that equal opportunity was a fundamental right and that both the Government and employers would see the legitimacy of a review. A new law would save them millions of pounds in legal fees and address employer's demands for "clarity", she said.

The consultation paper, which will go to all interested individuals and organisations, calls for a fundamental change from the emphasis on fighting discrimination to promoting "the positive right to equal treatment". Commissioners would make employers responsible for promoting equal opportunities - another possible bone of contention - and extend protection to include cases involving sexual orientation and "gender reassignment".

A suggestion that might concern the armed forces, however, is the contention that sexual discrimination laws concerning the military should be amended. At the moment, the forces are allowed to discriminate in cases where they believe "combat effectiveness" could be impaired by ensuring equality. Ms Bahl believes that the only factor to be considered in recruitment or promotion is whether the candidate has the relevant experience, qualifications and abilities.

Ms Bahl acknowledged that there had been significant changes in society since the current legislation was drawn up more than 20 years ago and that men sometimes now felt they were victims. In particular the commission was investigating the academic under-achievement of boys.