Alistair Darling in the dock over UK’s failure to implement EU Equal Treatment Directive

The High Court has ruled the government failed to properly implement the European Equal Treatment Directive within the UK regulations that protect women from discrimination.

The judge ordered that trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling has until midday on 16 March to explain how the government plans to remedy the situation.

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) challenged the government’s sex discrimination regulations, arguing that women would not enjoy the full protection against harassment and pregnancy discrimination required by the original European directive, and that they could lose aspects of existing maternity rights already established in UK case law.

In judicial review proceedings, Mr Justice Burton ruled:

  • The definition of harassment in the regulations was too narrow, and did not reflect the broad protection in the directive. For example, the regulations gave no apparent protection to women harassed by clients, even when their employer knows of the harassment and could take steps to prevent it but fails to do so.
  • Women’s rights during maternity leave were also unclear as a result of the new regulations. Women and their employers did not know whether a woman was protected if she was not consulted about a change to her job while on maternity leave, or if she fell behind in a queue for promotion because her time on additional maternity leave was excluded from length of service.

Jenny Watson, chair of the EOC, said: “This decision is a welcome result for the thousands of vulnerable women who suffer pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment every year.

“It should also come as good news for employers, who now have a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities and won’t find themselves tied up in expensive and time-consuming cases seeking clarification of regulations that are incompatible with European legislation.”

The CBI said it would have to look at the judgment “carefully” and fully consider its implications.

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