New Clause 41 — Irrelevance of alleged discriminator's characteristics

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 2nd December 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Solicitor General, Attorney General's Office 4:15 pm, 2nd December 2009

These are miscellaneous but important new clauses and amendments. Many of them were tabled by the Opposition, but I shall start with the Government ones.

New clause 41 and the associated amendment support the Bill's aim of clarifying the legislation, and we have listened to points made by hon. Members in Committee. The new clause is needed also in consequence of clause 14, which was added in Committee and protects people from dual discrimination.

The amendments are necessary to ensure that, in cases of direct or dual discrimination, the alleged discriminator cannot argue that they are not liable because they share the protected characteristic. Without the amendments a gay man, for example, might dispel an allegation that he had discriminated against another gay man because he himself is gay. That coincidence is irrelevant under the Bill.

We discussed the matter in the eighth sitting of the Committee. The key question was whether, by stating overtly the long established convention that it is immaterial in a case of direct discrimination that the alleged discriminator is of the same religion or belief as the victim, this cast doubt on the situation for other protected characteristics. Our starting point was that it should not have cast doubt because we have merely replicated the law as it applies, uniquely, to religion or belief, and we thought that parallel issues were unlikely to arise. We then considered that the scope for intra-religious discrimination required us to take the action that we have taken.

As a presentational matter, the difference with this Bill is that we now have a single clause setting out the definition of direct discrimination and the qualifications to it, for all the protected strands, but unlike some of the other caveats and elaborations in the clause for particular strands, subsection (6) could, to the unfamiliar, raise questions about where this leaves other characteristics, in cases in which the claimant and the discriminator share the protected characteristic. We do not think that real problems will arise.

We have listened to the arguments made by Dr. Harris, though, when he advanced the case for an amendment, and we have taken his argument pretty well on board. There are two more points that I could make in favour of these changes, but as he advocated them very strongly and we have accepted them, he will be pleased, I hope, and we need not elaborate why we did so.

Clause 14 is about dual discrimination, allowing somebody who has been treated less favourably because of a combination of two protected characteristics to bring a claim. That was introduced towards the end of the Committee stage. The amendments today will make it clearer how the provisions work. There are many consequential amendments that we could not pick up in Committee because the clauses affected had already been debated by the time we introduced the new clause.

On amendment 145 to clause 14, the basic principle is that although the conduct alleged in a dual discrimination claim must be prohibited in respect of each of the protected characteristics in the combination, a claimant does not have to prove that he or she was treated less favourably because of each of them in turn. However, where an exception or justification applies to the conduct which would mean that it was not unlawful direct discrimination because of one or both of the protected characteristics, a dual discrimination claim cannot succeed.

For example, discrimination in employment is prohibited in respect of both sex and race. That would mean that a black man may bring a claim of dual discrimination if he is denied a job because of the combination of his sex and race. He would not need to be able to prove that he was treated less favourably because of his sex and because of his race separately. However, if the employer could show that it is an occupational requirement for the job that it should be held by a woman, and therefore that denying the job to a man would not be unlawful, the claim would not succeed. This is not a change of policy, but it is important clarification because there are provisions in the Bill that allow genuine occupational exemptions of this kind. We have put in place amendments to capture those justifications and exceptions from any other Act as well.

In addition, clause 14 relates to cases of disability discrimination in education which are heard by the special educational needs and disability tribunals or equivalent specialist tribunals. We are excluding from the scope of clause 14 circumstances involving discrimination in education because of disability. That is because the case of someone being treated less favourably by a school, owing to the combination of disability and another protected characteristic, would be met by a single-strand claim in the specialist tribunal. It is better to defer to the expertise of those exclusive jurisdictional regimes than to undermine them by sending combined claims out of their specialist area to the civil courts. We are not stopping a remedy; we are providing the one that we think best fits.

We need to make that amendment to clause 14 to reflect the changes to the rest of the clause, but they are quite techie and detailed and I do not feel that people will be disadvantaged if I do not set out exactly why we need all the consequential amendments. By and large, there was cross-party support for dual discrimination, and it follows that, because the measure was introduced late in the day, we will have to put in shape all prior clauses in order to acknowledge it.

Amendments 152 to 154 are about clarifying "harassment" in clause 25. Amendment 152 replaces the bulk of subsections (1) and (2) with some more straightforward propositions. Currently, subsection (1)(b) defines sexual harassment by copying the wording of European directives, namely whereby somebody

"engages in any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature".

We replicated that wording when we amended the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 to implement the relevant directive, but it is difficult to identify any sexual harassment that would not be verbal, non-verbal or physical, therefore those words were probably always superfluous. The wording has not been a problem with the 1975 Act, but in the more far-reaching Equality Bill it could cast doubt on broader references to "conduct".

The second matter that amendment 152 addresses is an ambiguity in clause 25(4). "Harassment" in clause 25 encompasses three kinds of conduct: first, unwanted conduct in relation to all the protected characteristics, but not pregnancy, maternity, marriage and civil partnership; secondly, sexual harassment; and thirdly, less favourable treatment because a person has rejected or submitted to either sexual harassment or harassment related to sex or gender reassignment.

Clause 25(4) covers the third form. The provision is ambiguous and we need to clarify it to ensure that the conduct that is submitted to or rejected has the purpose or effect of violating the complainant's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. The ambiguity arises because of the way in which the three forms of harassment are described, so we have, as it were, restructured the provision.

Amendment 179 amends schedule 3, which relates to part 3 of the Bill, on services and public functions. The issue is about the provision of services to employees and the ways in which they are to be treated as a section of the public. That is relatively straightforward when it involves the arrangement by employers of such services for employees as gym membership, but when the employer discriminates in providing access to that service, the employer can be held liable. Employers should ensure that all employees can access the service without being discriminated against, but that becomes more difficult when it is applied to group financial products such as group insurance policies-arrangements between an employer and an insurer for the benefit of the employees, their partners and so on.

Group personal pensions are arranged by the employer for the employee as part of their overall package. They are entered into on the basis not of individual characteristics, but of the employer's business and the overall profile of their employees. Currently, employers are responsible for those schemes, as they are part of the employment relationship, and the amendment would remove from the scope of the provisions services group insurance schemes that are arranged in that way. It is very important that I mention that, as it is a change of that kind.

Amendment 186 is a purely technical amendment, so let me bother the House with it no longer. I look forward to hearing from Mr. Harper about the Conservative new clauses.

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website