Employers are to be allowed to discriminate in favour of women, black and disabled job candidates under controversial new laws.
Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone insisted the shake-up announced yesterday was not about ‘political correctness’ but making the workplace fairer.
The legislation was drawn up by Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman but has been adopted by the Coalition.
Other elements of Labour’s Equality Act, including compulsory ‘gender pay audits’ for firms, have been scrapped.
But the Government’s decision to press on with so-called ‘positive action’ will alarm business leaders and Right-wing Tories.
The change in the law, designed to address under-representation of certain groups in the workplace, will enable firms to choose women, ethnic minorities or disabled people ahead of equally qualified white male, able-bodied applicants without the risk of being sued.
It will also apply to gay and transgender people. In theory, men could also be favoured in some areas where they are under-represented, such as primary teaching.
Behind the headlines: Harriet Harman and the Daily Mail headline from June, 2008
Miss Featherstone said the changes would give women and others a fairer deal in the workplace.
‘These plans are absolutely not about political correctness, or red tape, or quotas,’ she said.
‘It is about giving employers the choice to make their workforce more diverse.’
From April next year, employers will be allowed to start to use the measure as part of their recruitment process. Formal guidance will be published in the new year.
Ministers said they would ‘apply voluntary positive action in recruitment and promotion processes when faced with candidates of equal merit, to address under-representation in the workforce’.
But it emerged that when determining whether candidates are equally qualified, employers will not have to judge solely on the basis of qualifications. They will also be able to take into account ‘general ability, suitability, competence and experience’.
That will raise concerns that employers’ judgments could be highly subjective and trigger legal action for unfair discrimination by rejected candidates.
The Government’s equalities strategy said the change in the law did not mean that employers could introduce ‘quotas’ or give someone a job simply because they are female, disabled or from an ethnic minority.
But David Green, director of think-tank Civitas, said the legislation imposed ‘illiberal requirements on employers’.
‘For centuries liberals have fought for individuals to be judged on their own merits not according to their class or race,’ he said.
‘The Government is now to require employers to discriminate on grounds of “group identity”, not personal qualities.’
The equality strategy also proposed schemes to promote equality for homosexuals, such as ‘gay-friendly’ workplaces.
Ministers are also in talks over allowing same-sex couples to register civil partnerships in church, a crackdown on ‘irresponsible’ and sexualised advertising, and clothing that forces children to grow up too young.
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