Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Legislating for equality in the UK

Yesterday the UK government introduced its Equality Bill, which updates and collects the UK's scattered anti-discrimination legislation into a single, comprehensive Act. The bill is being hailed as a tremendous step forward for equality, and it does contain some landmark measures - starting with the opening clause imposing a duty on public bodies to reduce socio-economic and class inequality (meaning that every Minister, department, local authority and school would need to allocate resources to the poor rather than the rich). It also requires large employers to publish statistics on pay equity (though shies away from comprehensive pay audits), bans secrecy clauses in employment contracts, gives employment tribunals powers to recommend general rather than specific solutions in discrimination cases (effectively turning every such case into a free class action), and extends protection to transgendered people. It is a bold push, though as Polly Toynbee notes, also too late - if New Labour had done this at the beginning of its term, rather than the end, it would have had a decade to bed itself in and produce a better society. Now, thanks to New Labour's "caution", much of it will likely be gutted by the next Tory government.

Many of these measures could and should be adopted in New Zealand. There has already been one attempt to protect the transgender community by adding them to the Human Rights Act, though it was dropped before it ever came to a vote after Labour panicked over "moving too fast". And the measures around gagging clauses and pay statistics would make an easy member's bill (the equality measure I think needs a more comprehensive look - but it could be something for labour to run on in 2011). At the same time, I'm struck by the differences in the UK's legislation compared to our own. Firstly, the UK does not include family status, employment status, or political opinion in its list of protected characteristics. Secondly and more importantly, it takes a completely different approach to discrimination. In New Zealand, the prohibited grounds of discrimination include both the traits and their absence - so for example it is discrimination on the grounds of marital status to refuse someone a room because they are married (or civil unioned or de facto) - or because they are single (or divorced, widowed, whatever). In the UK, only the listed trait is protected - so while it is illegal to discriminate against someone because they are married, it is not illegal to discriminate against someone because they are single, divorced, or de facto. It's a glaring hole, and one they need to fix immediately.