A powerful human rights watchdog combating all forms of discrimination could be in place within two years.
The new body will tackle ageism and other kinds of discrimination
Ministers say the planned single body would be a "step change" in how the UK protects the rights of all citizens.
The proposed Commission for Equality and Human Rights would take on the work of existing but separate watchdogs.
But the plans for the major shake-up in equality remain controversial - with some critics fearing it will fail to properly represent minorities.
Under the plans, the proposed body will be charged with upholding both human rights and tackling discrimination against women, ethnic minorities, the disabled or on grounds of religion, age or sexual orientation.
The watchdog will take on the work of the current Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission.
COMMISISON FOR EQUALITY AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Combined discrimination powers
Merger of existing watchdogs
Up and running by 2006
Critics fear it will be weak
Launching the proposals, ministers said the new body's dual responsibility for human rights and equality meant it would be able to better protect individuals while also promoting a wider and deeper sense of society's responsibilities.
Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said: "Every one of us should have the chance to fulfil our potential, live with respect and dignity and not face the fear of prejudice, discrimination and hate.
"As individuals, our identities are diverse and complex. People don't define themselves as just a woman, or black or gay and neither should our equality
organisations. People and their problems should not be put in boxes.
"The CEHR will bring together knowledge and experience to overcome and
challenge all types of discrimination."
Three decades of law
Ministers first proposed the new body following the 1998 Human Rights Act which incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.
In practice this meant individuals had gained greater powers to challenge discrimination or unfair treatment by a public body than previously existed.
The government then established the Disability Rights Commission with similar powers to the existing sexual and race equality bodies.
Last year the UK introduced EU-inspired laws banning employers from discriminating on grounds of sexual orientation or religious beliefs.
Ministers say merging responsibility for all these equality measures - some of which date to 1970 - will create a body capable of tackling discrimination at all levels in society.
Tessa Harding of Help the Aged said the new commission was essential to tackle discrimination against older people.
"Ageism is pernicious, and our society is riddled with it," she said. "It is endemic in the workplace. It leaves older people who are able and willing to work without
employment or income, condemning them to poverty in old age.
"The Commission is the first and most positive step towards ridding ourselves of this miserable blight."
But some organisations say they have concerns about how the new body will work.
While supporting the principle of a single body, the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) said the government needed to also reform the law and create all-embracing equality powers.
Bert Massie, chairman of the DRC, said: "The need for single equalities legislation is very important.
"Without it, it would be easier for the CEHR to fail than to succeed.
"From day one of the commission's life there would be serious fault lines in its legal powers which could sow the seeds for future disharmony."
Karen Chouhan, director of the 1990 Trust, a human rights and race equality campaign group, said the proposals appeared to sideline race - and left wider questions about how it would pursue cases on behalf of the public.
"There is some positive things in human rights with some intervention powers but we are disappointed that there is not a power to take individual cases," said Ms Chouhan.
"What happens to these people's cases, how are they going to be supported?"
"But we do not think the commission will add any value for race. Patricia Hewitt said that multiculturalism had had its day because people now had multiple identities.
"Our concern is the new body will be so colour blind it will follow an assimilationist agenda which fails to recognise the politics of difference and race.
"You have to recognise difference; that was the whole point made by the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry."