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Monday, 28 October, 2002, 05:45 GMT
New laws could revolutionise office culture
The biggest shake-up in workplace anti-discrimination laws for 25 years will be on the statute book by the end of next year.
The legislation will make discrimination against religion, belief or sexual orientation in the workplace unlawful in England, Scotland and Wales.
There has never been specific legislation in these areas before now, other than sexual and race discrimination laws.
Out-of-hours drinking and any informal company business conducted in the pub could become the first casualty because of certain religions that do not permit the drinking of alcohol.
It is anticipated that companies with a strong drink culture could be vulnerable to claims from employees who feel they have been passed over for promotion because of their non-involvement in these social activities.
The proposed measures were enshrined in draft legislation and consultation papers published last week.
The first and most immediate change will be introduced in December 2003.
This will make it illegal to discriminate against individuals on the grounds of their religion or belief or sexual persuasion.
This applies to all employees including agency workers and casual workers and, in many cases, to workers who are self-employed.
It won't, however, affect unpaid or voluntary work.
Discrimination against Jews and Sikhs is already covered by the Race Relations Act, but there is currently no protection in the UK - except in Northern Ireland - on the grounds of religion or belief.
Under the new measures, however, religion and belief have not been defined - and it will be up to Employment Tribunals to establish the boundaries.
The government says atheists and humanists will also be protected.
The government estimates that between 5% and 7% of the population, or between 1.3 million and 1.9 million, will benefit from the legislation on sexual orientation.
It's estimated that about 20% of lesbians, gay men and bi-sexual employees have suffered discrimination at work due to their sexuality - and the proposals have been welcomed by campaigners.
Some people in same-sex relationships may also get better pension rights.
The government believes that if a pension scheme already gives rights to unmarried couples, then it can't limit them to heterosexual couples.
The measures are part of a package of European-wide employment law changes.
In addition, by 2006, the government must also introduce measures banning ageism in the workplace and further extend disability legislation.
Barbara Roche, the government's minister in charge of equality, told BBC News Online that the proposals would help many people.
"I think it is a major step forward in equality provision. Equality and diversity aren't an add-on. It's about mainstream activity."
Ms Roche praised many employers for the work they were doing in this area, but she said people still faced discrimination in the workplace.
"Some people do face harassment perhaps because of their belief or their sexual orientation and quite simply that's wrong," she said.
In the accompanying literature, the government has set out the cost benefits to individuals and employers.
For example, the one-off cost of enforcing the religion and belief anti-discrimination legislation across the UK will be £13.9m, and then a further £2m a year.
However, the government argues that more opportunities, better wages and improved skills will benefit workers to the tune of £9m annually.
"There is a lot in here for business," says Ms Roche.
"If you can have measures which help you retain your employees, and have a happier workforce that makes good business sense as well."
Rachel Dineley, partner in Employment at law firm Beachroft Wansbroughs, says employers will have to become much better informed, particularly in relation to the religion and belief measures.
Employers may be required to provide prayer rooms or allow employees to take time off for religious commitments.
While this could lead to a more tolerant society, she says, it may breed resentment among some workers.
"I think it will be very interesting to see how this plays out in practice."
One concern she has is that religion and belief have not been defined under the proposals - and she envisages lengthy battles that could go as far as the European court.
The government is keen to stress the lengths to which it is consulting with business, but the repercussion could be wide-ranging.
"We've never had anything like this before," says Ms Dineley.
"What is radically different about this legislation is that it principally concerns what people think.
"It is going to be very interesting as to whether employers are going to be called upon to play the role of 'thought police'."
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