A leading Cornish law firm are warning that widespread ramifications are due to effect employers and employees as a result of the Equality Act 2010, some of which come into force from as soon as 1st October.
Nalders Solicitors are warning employers that now is the time to ensure that all their employment affairs are in order.
Dale Band, Head of Employment at Nalders Solicitors explains, "The Equality Act 2010 has been hailed as the most significant piece of equality legislation for a generation, simplifying the law and strengthening it in important ways to help tackle discrimination and inequality. It represents a much needed attempt to simplify and harmonize the law, which may help reduce the burden on businesses. However, businesses will need to get to grips with the new legislation before this is achieved."
To accompany the Act, the statutory equality body - the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is producing a combined code of practice which will provide guidance for both employers and employees.
There are currently 9 major pieces of legislation and around 100 other instruments governing the law on discrimination in England and Wales. To date, various discriminatory characteristics have been dealt with individually, through a number of different Acts and Regulations, meaning that the legal position varies according to the characteristic in question.
The Equality Act sets out 9 'protected characteristics' to which the legislation applies, encompassing all existing forms of discrimination: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.
Particular aspects of the legislation to note include:
Employers' pre-employment health inquiries have been outlawed, unless for prescribed reasons. However, employers are allowed to 'positively discriminate' when two candidates are equally qualified, so long as such decisions are proportionate
Pay secrecy clauses in employment contracts have been, on the face of it, abolished.
A new concept of "combined discrimination", based on dual characteristics such as age and sex, has been introduced.
The Act harmonizes existing case law to protect individuals who have been discriminated against because they are associated with someone who has a protected characteristic. For example, it appears men will also be offered protection by the pregnancy provisions in circumstances such as where his wife is pregnant and his employer considers this will effect his ability to do his job. Protection will also now be offered for individuals who are perceived to possess a particular characteristic.
Dale explains his recommendations for action as soon as possible:
"We strongly advise employers to check policies and procedures in their staff handbook, to ensure that equal opportunities and harassment policies are updated where necessary. We also recommend that recruitment processes are reviewed, in particular job advertisements and interview techniques, to ensure compliance. If in any doubt, or if there are questions, people can contact us for assistance."
Nalders offer a comprehensive Employer Protection Scheme (EPS) to employers. Under the Scheme Nalders offer a full audit of an employer's existing contracts, policies and practices to ensure that they comply with the Equality Act 2010 and all other changes in legislation and case law. Nalders also operates a telephone helpline service to answer any queries that the business may have together with an insurance policy to cover the legal cost of defending any employment dispute, settlement or any award made against the employer (subject to policy terms).