LONDON – U.K. employers will now officially have to deal with new laws aimed at preventing discrimination in a broad range of sectors including the workplace, education and services.
The Equality Act, which came into force Friday, consolidates nine pieces of anti-discrimination legislation into one statute and covers areas like pay, gender, disability, and religion and belief.
The law permits some restriction in the provision of benefits by charities where it is "a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim."
It makes pay discrimination harder as employers will not be able to use secrecy laws to stop male and female employees from discussing their pay and employers will no longer be allowed to ask job applicants about their health at first interview.
The law also extends to discrimination against people who are perceived to have or are related to someone with a certain characteristic protected by the Act.
Neil Addison, Catholic barrister and director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, is among many who fear the law will create some difficulties for Christians.
In relation to the provision of services by charities, he said that the recent closure of Catholic adoption agencies showed that the concept of "proportionate" discrimination was "dangerously subjective" and that religious charities may end up having to choose between closure or acting against their will.
With the law making marriage and civil partnership a "protected characteristic," Mr. Addison said religious organizations that do not regard marriage and civil partnership as equal may face "additional pressures."
Though the Equality Act is now in effect, the U.K. government is still consulting on one section of the law to allow civil partnerships to be held on religious premises.
Addison said that if this section were to come into force in the future, it may become unlawful for any religious premises to refuse to conduct civil partnerships.
Reviewing the Equality Act on his blog, he said: "In theory [the] new Act does not change the law but merely consolidates it into one statute. However we shall have to see what happens in practice."
Other experts have voiced concern at the "amount of employment red tape" and the potential for a sharp rise in the number of employment tribunal cases.
The British Chambers of Commerce estimates that the Equality Act will cost businesses £189 million to implement.
Its director general, David Frost, said: "If private sector businesses are to offset job losses in the public sector, the significant costs of employing people must be reduced.
"As austerity measures start to bite, companies need the flexibility and freedom to boost employment and drive our economic recovery," he added.