The new Act will re-enact the current equality law to harmonise it and make it easier to read, understand and apply.
However anything that was unlawful under the old equality laws continues to be unlawful under the new Act. The majority of The Equality Act will start to apply in October 2010 and most of the Act does not apply in Northern Ireland. This article will look at what is changing as a result of the Act.
Disability Discrimination – there will be a slightly different test of what ‘disability’ means. It will be easier for someone to show that they have difficulty carrying out their day-to-day activities and therefore that they come under the definition of ‘disabled person’ and are protected under the Act. It also creates a new form of disability discrimination called ‘discrimination arising from disability’ to replace the current and empty concept of disability related discrimination. Employers will also generally no longer be allowed to ask questions about health or disability before offering a job or before including a person in a pool of people to be offered a job when a vacancy arises. However employers will still be allowed to ask necessary health/disability questions in certain situations, for example, in order to establish whether the employer will owe a reasonable adjustment duty.
Equal pay – an employer will not be able to take action against an employee for talking to colleagues or trade union representatives about how much they get paid. This may help a person find out if they might be able to make a claim for equal pay.
Gender Reassignment Discrimination – under the new law a person no longer has to be under medical supervision to be protected from discrimination and harassment if they are a transsexual person. A person will also be protected from direct discrimination as a result of being associated with someone who is transsexual or if a person is being discriminated against by someone because they think they are a transsexual even if they are not. Transsexual people will also be protected from indirect discrimination where a rule, policy or practice particularly disadvantages transsexual people and cannot be justified.
Harassment – harassment is behaviour which hurts a person’s dignity or is offensive. The new law makes it clearer that a person will be protected if they are harassed because they associate with someone who has a protected characteristic or because someone thinks they have a protected characteristic, for example, a person is harassed because their son is gay or because someone wrongly thinks another person is a Muslim. The new law means that if someone is harassed at work by a third part y who is not an employee of the employer their employer will be held responsible if they know that a person has been harassed repeatedly by someone like a customer or a client and they do nothing reasonable to stop it happening again.
In Northern Ireland, the equality laws that currently apply here will continue to do so. However, perhaps this new development in GB will encourage the local Executive to introduce a similar Single Equality law here. If so, the Act indicates what may be contained in any future Single Equality Act that is enacted in Northern Ireland.
Further information on equality laws in Northern Ireland is available from your local CAB or from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland’s enquiry line on 028 90 890 890 or from www.equalityni.org.
Siobhan Harding is an Information & Policy Officer with Citizens Advice