European Commission legal threat will accelerate passage of Equality Bill

The threat of legal action by the European Commission could increase pressure on the government to get the Equality Bill onto the statute book early next year.

The commission has accused the UK of failing to implement aspects of European Directives covering equal treatment, and has given the government two months to respond to the allegations, after which it will begin legal action.

A discrimination lawyer said the threat could put extra pressure on ministers to push the long-awaited Equality Bill through Parliament quickly, so the UK would be seen to be addressing the perceived shortfalls.

The Equality Bill is due to have its second reading in the House of Lords today (15 December).

Audrey Williams, partner and head of discrimination law at Eversheds, said provisions in the Bill would largely address the current flaws in UK legislation identified by the EC.

“The UK government will clearly not wish to be on the receiving end of legal proceedings and may wish to take steps to placate the European Commission,” she said.

“One way of doing so might be to ensure the relatively smooth passage of the Equality Bill, but the two-month timescale for responding may not allow for that.”

One of the inadequacies identified by the European Commission was the government’s failure to establish the right to pursue ‘class’ or ‘representative’ actions involving multiple claimants in discrimination cases – which has since been debated as part of the Equality Bill.

Meanwhile, the government has been accused of watering down requirements for employers to publish pay audits, in a bid to secure faster implementation of the legislation.

A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into the pay auditing clause in the Equality Bill is expected to recommend in January that the onus to report should initially only be applied to companies employing more than 500 people. The Bill currently states that organisations employing more than 250 people should publish pay audits.

Stephen Overell, associate director at the Work Foundation, told Personnel Today that the move would amount to “quite a significant watering down” of the Bill, and said he expected this was “probably the first of what may be a series of dilutions” to the legislation to ensure it is passed before the general election.

He said: “Restricting pay audits to employers with more than 500 staff will take several million people out of the scope of this law. It’s a bit short-sighted. If the intention is to encourage more companies to take up pay audits, then doing this is a step backwards not forwards.”

But Tim Medcalf, equal pay specialist at HR software company NorthgateArinso, who also sits on the EHRC’s technical advisory group for gender pay reporting for the private sector, said the government had to start somewhere.

“Gender pay gap reporting is always going to be a big compromise because there are so many stakeholders involved. Large organisations probably have the systems in place to start the ball rolling. If they can achieve some results then over time the government can lower the threshold,” he said.

The EHRC and the Government Equalities Office refused to comment until the report was published in January.

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