02 Oct 2010

John Mason has warmly welcomed the Equality Act, most of which came into force yesterday (1 October). John was heavily involved in the Equality Bill when he sat on the committee of 18 MPs examining the Bill in detail in June 2009. He said, “Although the Bill and Act made mistakes and did not go far enough in some areas, the overall thrust of the legislation is good, giving more protection to a number of groups in society.”

The Equality Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of eight protected characteristics including race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion and belief. It replaces and updates previous anti-discrimination legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act. Of course some people would feel that other forms of discrimination should have been outlawed too, e.g. it is not illegal to discriminate against someone for their political views. But the Act does seek to tackle the main forms of obvious discrimination. Again others were concerned that the legislation did not go far enough, e.g. in relation to equal pay for women, as progress in this has been painfully slow since the legislation in the 1970s.

One very contentious area was the potential clash between competing rights such as sexual orientation and religion and belief. There was support across parties for a purpose clause in the Act which would have guided the courts in interpreting the detail of the legislation but the Government of the day refused to include this. John Mason expressed at the committee the concern of some religious people that the courts often put religion at the bottom of the pile when it comes to deciding between competing rights. However, the then Solicitor General, Vera Baird, said it was not the Government’s intention to set up a hierarchy of rights.

A specific concern of John Mason’s (in a personal capacity) was that the Bill as originally tabled would have further restricted churches and other religious organisations as to whom they could employ. However, the House of Lords amended the Bill to protect religious freedom and the Government eventually accepted this.