Changes to Equality Law

Rights of equality for all members of our society is one of the most fundamental tenets of our legal system. The protection of minorities and the more vulnerable members of the community has been an issue that has been held dear by the previous Labour Government and now the coalition. With this in mind, the new Equality Act 2010 was enacted and the majority of the provisions under this statute came into effect from 1 October 2010.

There were a number of very important changes in law and clarifications of grey areas introduced through this legislation. One issue that had remained a real controversy up until this clarification was the right of mothers to be able to breastfeed their newborn children in public areas. The Equality Act 2010 has, at last, clarified the fact that mothers are indeed perfectly entitled to breastfeed their children in areas such as cafés and shops and not feel fearful of being asked to leave in order to prevent the embarrassment of other customers. This debate had been raging for long enough and it is important that mothers now have a reliable source of law here by which they are protected.

Another important aspect of the Act is the fact that it will now be unlawful for employers to ask questions about the health and disabilities of applicants for employment. However, depending on the nature of the role of employment, there will be circumstances when this will still be necessary.

Employers will also be in breach of this law if they discriminate against an applicant when they have reason to believe that the applicant is associated with a person who has a ‘protected characteristic’. This covers the more vulnerable people in society (e.g. carers), so, if an employer does not hire because they were concerned about the applicant’s attachment to the person the applicant is looking after and feels that the applicant may not be as dependable as another applicant, this would be construed as unlawful.

The legislation has also provided that pay secrecy clauses will be unenforceable, and this will be an interesting change in the law in the future. Personally, nearly every company I have worked for in the past has made it very clear that we were not permitted to discuss our salary with other employees – in fact, this practice appears to be more commonplace than not. This was only ever intended for companies to be duplicitous and no doubt many people will be glad that employers are no longer legally able to enforce such a restriction. Surely, though, this merely extends a freedom of speech to discuss such a matter?

There are further provisions of the Act that will come into force in April 2011. These include a public-sector equality duty and law to cover recruitment and promotion. There are more elements of the Act that are still under discussion and a few other provisions have already fallen along the wayside: one of the most important was a requirement to report back on any gender pay discrepancies.

Both human rights and equality laws are tending to move forward at an astonishingly fast pace lately. Nevertheless, the latest legislation appears to have made some good sense, especially for certain members of our society who may have found it more difficult in the past to secure a role of employment as a consequence of an important additional commitment or disability. Furthermore, that breastfeeding debate has been settled once and for all and nursing mothers can now say that if you’re really that put off by something so natural – go elsewhere.