Page last updated at 19:24 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 20:24 UK

Harman pushes discrimination plan

Harriet Harman sets out plans to MPs

Equality minister Harriet Harman has set out plans to allow firms to discriminate in favour of female and ethnic minority job candidates.

She said firms should be able to choose a woman over a man of equal ability if they wanted to - or vice versa.

The new Equalities Bill will also force public sector employers to disclose the gender pay gap in their organisation.

The plans, which will be adopted in England, Wales and Scotland, will also ban all age discrimination.

Setting out the plans in a Commons statement, Ms Harman said the proposed bill - due later this year - would "address the serious inequalities that still exist" in the UK.

'Old boy network'

They would increase fairness and diversity and help Britain compete in the global economy by being more open, she told MPs.

"A society which is equal and fair is one which is more at ease with itself," she added.

This bill should seek to unite not divide - it has good intentions but its lack of detail and clarity is disappointing
Theresa May
Shadow Commons leader

The plans would also bring together all previous discrimination law into a single piece of legislation which she said would cut red tape for business.

Allowing "positive action" would help organisations such as the police better reflect the communities they serve by recruiting more female and ethnic minority officers, said Ms Harman.

But if, for example, a headmistress wanted to discriminate in favour of a male teacher to balance an all female team that would be allowed too.

Wage gap

Asked how she could justify discrimination in the name of equality, she said she wanted tackle "patterns of discrimination" in the workforce and ensure firms were "not just 'entrenched in the old boy network'".

Age discrimination in the workplace has been illegal since 2006, but the new legislation will tackle more widespread forms of age-related prejudice.


It also aims to close the gender pay gap by forcing firms to publish pay rates.

Female part-time workers still earned 40% less per hour than their full-time male counterparts, Ms Harman told Today BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Do we think she is 40% less intelligent, less committed, less hard-working, less qualified? It's not the case. It's entrenched discrimination. It's allowed to persist because it's all swept under the carpet."

The bill will also seek to stop pensioners being denied NHS treatment because of their age, although doctors will still be able to refuse treatment if they believe there are sound clinical reason for doing so.

It's a very artificial way to fix the problem
Johnny, East London

Age discrimination will also be outlawed in the provision of goods and services, although there could be exemptions for things like holiday aimed at certain age groups.

It will also give women the right to breastfeed in public and outlaw "homophobic bullying" in the workplace.

Theresa May, for the Conservatives, broadly welcomed the proposals but said they "confused the government's message" by allowing discrimination in certain circumstances.

"This bill should seek to unite not divide. It has good intentions but its lack of detail and clarity is disappointing," she told MPs

She said she was willing to work with the government to improve the legislation.

The Tories want compulsory pay audits for firms found guilty of gender discrimination at employment tribunals.

Lib Dem youth and equality spokeswoman Lynne Featherstone also broadly welcomed the proposals.

But she said: "If the government genuinely wants to tackle equality it must do more to end the growing discrepancy between the rules on pay for the public and private sector.

"Without compulsory pay audits for the private sector these proposals will represent a very real victory for the hawks in the cabinet."

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Guardian Unlimited Emine Saner investigates the workplace bias against women and ethnic minorities - 9 hrs ago
Daily Mail Harman vows to force through 'true equality' in the workplace, as bosses call plan 'a nightmare' - 11 hrs ago
The Scotsman Equality supremo Harman admits new law will lead to discrimination against men - 12 hrs ago
Independent The Sketch: Some workers are more equal than others, but that's only fair - 12 hrs ago
Glasgow Herald Harman aims to close gender pay gap - 14 hrs ago

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