The Employment Equality Act 2006 is due to come into force on 6 April 2007. Public sector employers are the prime target of the legislation but Osborne Clarke employment lawyer Caroline Dunne reports on hidden traps for ad agencies.
In what has been described by the Equal Opportunities Commission as the most significant change in gender equality legislation for 30 years, all public sector bodies will soon be under a general duty to tackle unlawful discrimination and to promote equality between men and women. This is in addition to current Discrimination legislation.
The legislation introducing this change, the Employment Equality Act, is due to come into force on 6 April 2007. The Act has four main aims:
1 to establish the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (the "CEHR"). The CEHR will replace and take on the work of the existing equality Commissions (the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission). It will additionally assume responsibility for promoting equality and combating unlawful discrimination in three new strands, namely, sexual orientation, religion or belief and age. The CEHR will also have responsibility for the promotion of human rights. The CEHR is due to be operational in October 2007;
2 to impose a general duty on public sector employers in the exercise of their public duties to pay attention to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, facilities and services, education, the use and disposal of premises, and the exercise of public functions;
3 to provide the Secretary of State with powers to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods, facilities and services; and
4 to create a duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between women and men ('the gender duty') and prohibit sex discrimination and harassment in the exercise of public functions.
What does this mean for affected employers?
All affected employers, that is, public sector bodies, should carry out a full review of their employment policies and procedures. In particular, attention should be paid to recruitment issues (e.g. ensuring that job adverts are placed where they are likely to be seen by both genders), terms and conditions of employment (e.g. ensuring that equal pay audits are carried out), promotional issues (e.g. ensuring that both genders are treated equally) and dismissal.
What effect will it have on private sector employers?
Whilst the Act does not impose any direct duty on private sector employers, employers who are involved in the supply to public bodies of any goods or services or in the subcontracting of local authority services may be affected. For example, an agency tendering for an advertising contract for a public sector body may find that the tender specifications require all potential contractors to have carried out an equal pay audit and confirm that they have removed any inequalities arising as a result of that audit. Failure to do so may result in a tender being lost.
Agencies who deal with any part of the public sector will therefore need to look to their internal policies and procedures to assess whether they will stand up to the scrutiny of their actual or potential public sector clients.