Page last updated at 19:28 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 20:28 UK

Q&A: The new Equality Bill

Pensioner watching television
Older people complain of discrimination from insurers and doctors

It has been billed as a landmark move to end discrimination, making it easier for women to demand equal pay and ending age discrimination. The Cabinet Office refers to it as "positive action" rather than "positive discrimination" - but what will the Equality Bill mean in practice for working women, travelling pensioners and Club 18-30 holidaymakers?

What has been announced?

Equalities Minister Harriet Harman has set out plans on equality to the House of Commons.

The single bill will replace the 116 different pieces of equality legislation in force, including 35 acts, 52 statutory instruments, 13 codes of practice and 16 European Commission directives.

It will apply to England, Wales and Scotland all at the same time.

But the bill represents more than just legislative housekeeping. It will tackle the pay gap between men and women and is broadening the scope of current age discrimination legislation.

What does the new bill mean for women?

More than 30 years after equal pay legislation was introduced, there is still a gap between what men and women take home in their pay packets.

Official figures show that the gender pay gap has been declining, but for every pound a man earns, a woman still earns just 87 pence. Female part-time workers also still earn as much as 40% less than their full-time male counterparts, Ms Harman has said.

Many contracts include clauses that prevent colleagues discussing what they earn - these will be outlawed by the new bill.

Also on the table are proposals to make public bodies publish the gender pay gap within their organisation.

The bill is also set to allow companies to discriminate in favour of female and ethnic minority candidates of equal ability, though companies would not be forced to use positive discrimination.

How will "positive action" work in practice?

Not everyone thinks it will create a fairer workplace.

Some business groups say it could create a box-ticking culture.

"This [proposal] is pretty incoherent. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for this," said Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Businesses could face legal challenges if they are seen to be positively discriminating in favour of certain candidates, she added.

"Employers will have to [show] evidence [of] what they are doing and why. They will have to show people have gone through the same recruitment process."

The UK already has some of the strictest anti-discrimination laws in the world, said the employers' organisation, the CBI.

"Public procurement can be an effective lever. But making firms that are bidding for government contracts audit their pay would be pointless and would do nothing to improve equality in the workplace," said the CBI's deputy director general, John Cridland.

What will the bill mean for older people?

With more and more people living and working longer, the legislation represents a rethink of attitudes to old age.

"The last frontier of equality is ensuring that the growing number of older people in this country don't face unfair prejudice and discrimination," Harriet Harman told the Commons last week.

Age discrimination has been illegal since 2006, but the current law is much narrower than legislation that covers other groups and focuses principally on the workplace.

Mick Jagger
A poster boy for active older people, the Stones' Mick Jagger rolls on

Pensioners should be protected from age discrimination by health and financial services under the new bill, which are all areas exempt from the current law.

Pressure groups for older people, such as Age Concern, say too many old people are automatically refused insurance, without being told why.

Some insurance companies have upper age limits for life insurance or holiday cover - 75 is often the upper age limit to hire a car. Also, if you are over 85, the overwhelming majority - 95% - of insurers will decline your business, Age Concern says.

While the risk of injury does rise as people get older, it is still less than for a 18-to-25-year-old male driver, the campaign group says. It argues that a blanket approach is discriminatory.

Some older patients also say that doctors fob them off, dismissing genuine complaints as the travails of old age. However, if doctors believe there are real medical reasons not to treat a patient, they will still be allowed to decline to treat them.

Can businesses still target certain age groups?

The new legislation is aimed at tackling "harmful" age discrimination and does not affect benefits for older people, such as free bus travel.

Some companies, ranging from Club 18-30 holidays to Saga insurers and Sheila's Wheels, have built their business models on offering services to specific age groups or genders.

Age Concern has said it does not expect the bill to affect businesses such as these. Neither does the insurers' group, the ABI. "Our expectation is that the government will accept the principle that age is a valid [criterion] to base insurance risk pricing on, as long as it is backed up by actuarial data," it says.

The problem, say insurers, is not a lack of products, but a lack of information about what is available. They argue there are plenty of specialist insurers who will work with older people, but their premiums may be higher, because older people present a greater risk.

"Legislation, no matter how well intentioned, could have the unintended negative consequence of forcing some insurers to withdraw certain products altogether," said Nick Starling, the ABI's director of general insurance and health.

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