Employment experts have welcomed the passing of the Equality Bill in its entirety, but warned HR professionals that they need to get to grips quickly with the regulations.
The legislation, which comes into force in October, will replace nine laws and more than 100 other measures with a single Act, in a bid to make it easier for employers and staff to understand their legal rights and obligations.
Anthony Lester, a human rights lawyer and Liberal Democrat peer, told Personnel Today he was “delighted the Bill will become law at last”. “I have campaigned for it for a decade or more and it follows my own Private Member’s Bill and the Hepple Report,” he said.
Lester played down fears that the Bill was rushed through Parliament before it is dissolved ahead of the election, without enough time for employer input.
“It was carefully scrutinised in the Lords with six committee days as well as report and third reading stages,” he said. “Employers’ views were fully met – too fully as regards the weak provisions on equal pay.”
The Conservatives were criticised by Labour MP Vera Baird for not supporting the Bill at second reading, but Lester said her remarks were “unfair” adding that cross-party support was “crucial and welcome”.
Ben Willmott, senior public policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), welcomed the clause that will make it unlawful to ask candidates questions on their health before they have been offered a job unless such questions fall within those deemed “necessary”.
“We have supported this amendment,” he said. “The clause doesn’t prohibit asking questions – but employers (in most cases) can’t do it until the job offer has been made. They can then consider whether reasonable adjustments can be made and if something comes to light the job offer can still be withdrawn.”
Willmott warned that “some parts of the HR community” will have to make changes to prepare for this. In a CIPD survey of 1,400 employers, conducted last year, 42% said they should be allowed to ask health questions at the job application stage.
The Equalities Bill has generated a number of critical headlines, on issues such as protection for vegans and atheists, but Rachel Dineley, employment partner at law firm Beachcroft, insisted that the risk of claims had been “grossly exaggerated”.
“Not everything will come into force at once,” she said. “Sensible and qualified exceptions will be made where appropriate.”
But Dineley warned that employers will fall foul of the law unless they get to grips with its details. “Many will have their work cut out, putting appropriate measures in place to reduce the risk of claims against them,” she said.