The government’s new equality bill will play a “significant part” in reaching its goal of equality for disabled people by 2025, according to the minister for disabled people.
Jonathan Shaw was speaking after the government published the bill, which streamlines a “thicket” of equality laws in areas such as gender, race and disability, including nine main acts , into just one new piece of legislation.
The government said the bill will form the basis of straightforward practical guidance for employers, service providers and public bodies. It will cover England, Scotland, and Wales. If passed by parliament, the bill should come into force in the autumn of 2010.
Shaw said the most important benefit for disabled people would be dealing with the fallout from last year’s controversial Lords ruling in the Lewisham v Malcolm case, which weakened their protection from discrimination. He said the new bill would ensure protection was “stronger” than before the ruling.
Shaw said the bill would simplify the law for disabled people and employers. He added: “I think that if it is simpler to understand, it will be easier to apply.”
The bill will also simplify definitions of discrimination, and make it easier for a claimant in a discrimination case to prove they are disabled.
Shaw said the government had strengthened the new public sector single equality duty, following criticism that it would be a “watered down” version of the existing disability equality duty.
He said regulators such as Ofsted and the new Care Quality Commission would ensure public bodies were complying with the new duty, which will require them to consider the needs of disabled people when delivering public services.
Other measures in the bill include: a new duty on landlords to make alterations to common areas of buildings, such as hallways and stairs, to make it easier for disabled residents to use them; banning discrimination against disabled members, or guests of members, of private clubs; allowing employment tribunals to make recommendations in discrimination cases that benefit an entire workforce and not just the individual who wins the claim; and forcing public bodies to publish annually how many of their staff are disabled.
The bill will also extend the scope to use positive action, which would allow employers to choose a disabled person for a job if they have the choice of two or more equally suitable candidates, or allow political parties to take measures to encourage disabled parliamentary candidates.
And the bill bans discrimination and harassment of carers by extending protection to anyone who is “linked to” or “associated with” a disabled person, which will apply both in the workplace and in the provision of goods and services.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission welcomed the bill. Trevor Phillips, chairman of the commission, said: “Overall we think it is well framed and proportionate. It will help unblock some of the systemic problems that get in the way of equality and achievement for everyone in Britain.”
He said the commission would study the detail and suggest amendments if the bill “could be improved or go further”.
Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said: “Legislating now won’t just benefit disabled people who find the current law full of holes and difficult to use, it will help give UK businesses a stronger competitive advantage and help us emerge stronger from recession.”
Susan Scott-Parker, chief executive of the Employers’ Forum on Disability, also welcomed the bill, but added: “Real change for disabled people and employers will depend on the detail of the bill.”
And the charities Rethink, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the National Aids Trust called for an amendment to the bill to ban employers from asking health-related questions until after a job offer has been made, except for questions directly related to the position.