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Diversity: rights, guidance and knowing where you stand

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 26 Feb 2020

Today we talk in terms of diversity, but a decade ago the language was more around equality and discrimination. The passing of the Equality Act 2010 was the game changer that informs our understanding of diversity today, but the history of equality or anti-discrimination legislation is one of gradual change.

It could be argued that giving some women the right to vote in the UK in 1918 and the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919 were the first tiny steps in the march towards equality, but only for women. It took almost another 50 years and a second world war to change societal expectations before the need for further legislative change became apparent.

The first Race Relations Act was passed in 1965 and in 1967 the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexuality. The Equal Pay Act was enacted as long ago as 1970 – a sobering thought given all the recent revelations about the persistence of the gender pay gap in every sector of the economy. The Sex Discrimination Act followed in 1975 and another Race Relations Act in 1976. The Disability Discrimination Act did not land on the statute books until 1995. This was followed by a raft of employment equality regulations passed after the millennium, relating to religion or belief; sexual orientation; and age.

It was the Equality Act 2010 that really moved things along. It was partly a means to harmonise discrimination law so a single approach could be adopted. However, it was also an attempt to use the law to progress equality. Firstly, the Act placed a duty on some public bodies, employers and service providers to take positive action. Secondly, the Act extended the circumstances in which a person is protected against discrimination, harassment or victimisation by defining what a “protected characteristic” is and therefore what could not be used as a basis for discrimination.

These protected characteristics are:

  • age;
  • disability;
  • gender reassignment;
  • marriage and civil partnership;
  • pregnancy and maternity;
  • race;
  • religion or belief;
  • sex; and
  • sexual orientation.

Jane Berney, Business Law Technical Manager, comments: “The law now protects anyone from discrimination, not just in the workplace, but in education, as a consumer, as a user of public services, when buying or renting property, and as a member of an association. The concept of protected characteristics makes it very clear when you are discriminating against someone and that such behaviour is unlawful.”

Inevitably the Equality Act has not ended discrimination and so the law in this area continues to evolve. The Equal Pay Bill is currently going through its parliamentary paces and is now in the House of Lords for scrutiny. It seeks to amend the Equality Act 2010, the Equality Act 2006 and the Employment Rights Act 1996 to:

a. provide employees with the “right to know” relevant information about a possible comparator for equal pay purposes;

b. ensure that women are able to bring equal pay cases without being ruled out by strict time limits; that the remedies they receive include sums for injury to feelings, personal injury and lost pension rights; and that following Brexit employers will not be able to deny women their rights to equal pay through complex ownership structures;

c. provide for the inclusion of information on equal pay within the written statement of employment particulars; and

d. mandate changes to gender pay gap reporting, including the lowering of the threshold for reporting to 100 or more employees; the inclusion of data on pay of employees of different ethnic origins; the publication by each employer of an action plan; and the publication of additional pay data.

Berney comments: “As we celebrate 100 years of women as ICAEW members it is easy to think the fight against discrimination has been won. But as the Equality Act shows, discrimination takes many forms and we can never rest in our fight for equality and in our championing of diversity.”

For further information, please see the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Also, there is government guidance: Discrimination: your rights and Equality Act 2010: guidance.

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