Landmark legislation on equality and diversity aims to increase fairness in the workplace, writes Julia Brandon

The Equality Act, which unites a number of separate laws into one single act, has been heralded as a significant new piece of legislation and welcomed by the CSP. It has been coming into force in stages since last year.

This month the Government Equalities Office announced a consultation on the section covering age discrimination. The Department of Health announced that it would not seek any exemptions from the law.

‘There can be no place for arbitrary age discrimination in the NHS,’ said care services minister Paul Burstow. ‘The challenge for the NHS is to look beyond a person’s date of birth and meet the needs of older people as individuals.’

The Equality Act was devised to ensure a fairer working environment for all employees in England, Wales and Scotland. It replaces previous legislation, including the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

It covers age, disability, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity. These are now known as ‘protected characteristics’.

The act sets out guidelines for employers on areas of equality in the workplace that were not previously covered, as well as strengthening some of the existing coverage..

Employees can now make claims based on association with someone who has a protected characteristic. Should an employee who has a disabled child be refused flexible working arrangements when other employees have been allowed them, for example, they would now be covered.

The act also now covers someone who is mistakenly perceived to have a protected characteristic. So, if someone is discriminated against or harassed because they are believed to be gay, even though they are not, they would now be protected.

What this means for you

So, as a physiotherapist or associate at work or in search of a job, either in the NHS or private practice, how does the Equality Act affect you?

One key point is that an employer can no longer ask health- or disability-related questions when considering job applicants.

Enquiries into the health of a candidate are acceptable during an interview if they are to assess whether ‘reasonable adjustments’ need to be made to the recruiting process to enable individuals with impairments to achieve their best. The same applies if a certain function, such as heavy lifting, is deemed intrinsic to the role. But asking a candidate how a particular disability or impairment may hinder them on a day-to-day basis is not allowed.

Another important change is the extension of power awarded to employment tribunals. Previously an employment tribunal could make recommendations to an employer to remove or reduce the effects of discrimination on a claimant. Under the new act, an employment tribunal can recommend employers amend their policies or practices so that all employees will benefit from the changes.

But some improvements proposed by the previous Labour government have not been implemented. These include action on the gender pay gap, outlining specific duties related to procurement, and laying out action plans to help public bodies to achieve their equality objectives.

Although the Equality Act has been welcomed by many, and hailed as a landmark move, there are improvements still to be made, says Kate Moran, CSP head of employment research:

‘We are disappointed that the government has decided not to implement plans to require all employers in the private sector to publish information about their gender pay gap, particularly as women are still paid on average 17 per cent less for full-time work and 40 per cent less for part-time work,’ she says. fl

Julia Brandon

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