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Analysis: New bill aims to entrench gay rights in all aspects of public life

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The much-anticipated Equality Bill was unveiled today. It contains a range of measures that could prove contentious with opposition MPs and members of the House of Lords as it makes its way through the Parliamentary process.

The legislation (the text of the bill) lists the public bodies to which the Equality Duty applies.

This will include central government departments, local authorities, education bodies, NHS bodies and the police service, plus a wide range of other public bodies with whom we are holding further discussions over the summer. In addition the duty will apply to private bodies that deliver a public function, for example, a private firm running a prison.

The government will publish details of the full list of public bodies “as soon as possible to allow them to prepare in time for the duty to come into force.”

The bill will introduce a Equality Duty on public bodies, which means they need to think about the needs of everyone who uses their services or works for them. For example, a residential care home would have to consider the needs of same-sex couples.

Public services will also use the procurement process “to improve equality.” Suppliers will be expected to demonstrate they have a diverse workforce.

The new Equality Duty will require public authorities to advance equality of opportunity for transsexual people. For example, if a local authority notices that there are no support groups for people undergoing gender reassignment in their area it can fund a charity to help reach out to the transsexual community.

The legislation will widen the definition of ‘gender reassignment’ to make it clear that a person does not have to be under medical supervision to be protected from discrimination and protect people who face discrimination because of their association with transsexual people, for example, as their partner.

The bill also extends into the workplace. Employers can choose to make their workforce more diverse when selecting between two job candidates who are equally suitable. In other words, they can pick an LGBT candidate because of their sexual orientation or gender identity on diversity grounds.

The Equality bill will allow political parties to “do more to increase diversity on their electoral shortlists.” For example, this could include organising mentoring schemes for lesbian, gay and bisexual candidates. The use of all-woman shortlists in the selection of parliamentary candidates will be extended to 2030.

Employment tribunals will in future make recommendations that benefit the whole workforce and not just the individual who brought the claim, who often ends up leaving the company. For example, if a lesbian is bullied at work because of her sexual orientation the tribunal could recommend her employer conducts some awareness training to help prevent similar claims being brought in the future.

The new legislation aims to force private members’ clubs not to discriminate against people on the basis of their sexual orientation. For example, a working men’s club could not refuse to serve a drink to a man because he was gay.

Similarly a woman cannot be refused entry to a golf club’s bar or be prevented from playing when others are allowed to because she has undergone gender reassignment.

All of these new rules will also apply to people who face discrimination on the grounds of gender, age, religious belief, ethnic minority or disability. There are also targeted parts of the bill.

For example, The Equality bill will make it clear that it is unlawful to force breastfeeding mothers and their babies out of places like coffee shops, public galleries and restaurants.

The government expects the bill to become law next spring, just before the general election, which must be called by June 2010.

It is expected to come into force in Autum 2010.

Certain parts of the bill, such as the socio-economic duty on public bodies, and the public sector Equality Duty are likely to come into force in 2011.

The new legislation will generally apply in Scotland and Wales as well as in England. The Socio-economic Duty applies to England and Wales only. In a number of areas the Bill provides powers to Scottish and Welsh Ministers.

One of these is the power for Scottish Ministers to impose specific public sector equality duties on Scottish bodies and for Welsh Ministers to do likewise for Welsh bodies.

Tony Grew is editor of ispystrangers.org, a new website that reports on proceedings in Parliament.

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