The Labour Government has introduced an Equality Bill in the House of Commons that contains an extensive set of new provisions to clarify and expand the anti-discrimination mandate in the UK. (There is also a useful summary explaining the impact of the legislation.) Its proponents expect the bill to clear the House of Commons this summer and reach the House of Lords later this year. They predict that the bill will receive Royal Assent in spring 2010 and take effect that fall.
The single law is intended to replace nine major pieces of legislation, roughly 100 rules and regulations, and more than 2500 pages of guidance. Because of differences with the U.S. legal system, it is difficult to compare the two from a civil rights perspective, although in general one can say that the British system relies more on producing affirmative steps by government and employers, and less on the remedial, private enforcement realm of litigation under Title VII and similar measures.
Compromises have already been made in the bill. When Jane Harman, the government's equalities minister and the moving force behind the bill, announced a draft version last summer, her cabinet colleagues forced the deletion of the provision that most rankled big business. It would have required employers to make public reports on their efforts toward closing the gender gap in pay and providing more opportunities to racial and ethnic minorities. As introduced, the bill places that obligation only on public sector employers.
In addition, the bill would strengthen employment tribunals by permitting the award of damages if the employee has left the company (apparently no allowed now); limit government contracts to businesses that meet anti-discrimination goals; impose new duties of equal provision of government services, including "positive actions" for the benefit of disadvantaged groups; and provide that political parties can continue to use women-only short-list rules for candidate selection and to allocate slots for members of ethnic minorities until 2030. The summary includes a number of concrete examples for each proposal.
For lgbt people, according to the summary:
- The Equality Duty on public bodies means that, for example, a residential care home would have to consider the needs of same-sex couples. Or, if a local authority notices that there are no support groups for people undergoing gender reassignment in their area, its response could be to fund a charity to help reach out to the transsexual community. Or, a school district may have to explicitly address anti-gay bullying in its discipline policies.
- The legislation will widen the definition of ‘gender reassignment’ to make it clear that a person does not have to be under medical supervision to be protected from discrimination and protect people who face discrimination because of their association with transsexual people, for example, as their partner.
Apart from the differences in particulars, the big message here is that the UK is moving to a coherent, omnibus approach to the problems caused by all kinds of discrimination, including those based on economic class, in every realm of social life. I wonder if the US will ever get there.