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European Standing Committee C Debates

A General Framework for Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation

European Standing Committee C

Monday 24 July 2000

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

A General Framework for Equal Treatment in Employment and Occupation

[Relevant Documents: European Union Document No. 13540/99.]

4.30 pm

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Ms Tessa Jowell): I welcome today's debate, which is an important opportunity to discuss some issues arising from the European Commission's proposal to implement article 13 of the treaty. The Committee will be aware that negotiations on the article 13 package have been taken forward much more quickly than we anticipated. That acceleration of pace was due to decisions made by the Portuguese and the French presidencies. The French presidency made it clear that it intends to reach agreement on the proposal by 17 October or 3 November.

The change of pace has made formal consultation difficult. The Commission has not had time to issue revised texts of the proposal in time for the usual process. However, we have consulted a number of relevant organisations since negotiations began, including the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress, the Federation of Small Businesses, Age Concern, Eurolink Age, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Disability Rights Commission and representatives of Churches and other religious organisations. We have consulted also the Catholic board of education, the General Synod board of education, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and representatives of the interfaith forum.

Given the rapid pace of negotiation, and the absence of an up-to-date public version of the proposal, today's debate should be seen as a report on work in progress. I start by setting out our assessment of the framework directive and our negotiating objectives.

The proposal was published in November 1999 as part of a package of three proposals made under article 13--a directive on racial discrimination, an action programme to support the legislative action taken forward by the directives and the proposal that the Committee is considering today. Initially, the three proposals were considered in parallel, but during the second half of the Portuguese presidency negotiations concentrated on the race directive. That directive has been agreed, and negotiations are now focusing on the employment directive: the subject of today's debate. The action programme is close to being agreed, but a considerable amount of work remains to be done on the employment directive.

I shall deal briefly with the relationship between the three measures. The original proposals contained an area of overlap. Both directives covered discrimination on grounds of race or ethnic origin in employment and training, and a number of concepts were common to both--for example, indirect discrimination. The Commission has not yet produced a revised text for the proposed employment directive following agreement on the race directive, but in the light of consultation with the European Parliament we expect one to be issued in the first half of October. We expect the revised proposal to take up those articles in the now agreed race directive that cover common areas so that, for example, the definition of indirect discrimination will be common to both directives and the grounds of race and ethnic origin will be removed from the employment directive.

In outline, the proposal will set minimum standards throughout the European Community. It is important to stress that we are discussing a framework directive that is intended to establish minimum standards. It would prohibit direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, disability and age or sexual orientation in employment or training. It would also prohibit harassment on those grounds. In respect of disability, it would provide for reasonable accommodation to be made to enable disabled people to participate or advance in employment. It would apply to general conditions for access to employment, self employment and occupation. That would include selection criteria and recruitment conditions, as well as access to vocational guidance and training. It would also apply to employment and working conditions, including those which relate to dismissals, pay and membership of workers' or employers' organisations or professional organisations. It would also provide for specific exceptions to allow differences of treatment when that is justified. For example, it would apply in respect of religious organisations that require employees to have certain religious convictions. It provides that direct discrimination on the grounds of age could be justified by a legitimate aim, such as a labour market objective.

The framework directive would allow for, but not require, positive action to compensate for the disadvantages people might experience because of their religious belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. It would shift the burden of proof in cases of alleged discrimination, other than in criminal procedures. That would ensure that after the establishment of a prima facie case to answer, it would be for the respondent to prove that there had been no breach of the principle of equal treatment. It is important to understand that the directive is codifying existing case law, which currently allows for that. The directive also covers victimisation, in order to protect employees against dismissal or other adverse treatment by the employer that is administered as a reaction to a complaint on grounds of equal treatment.

Those will be minimum standards. As is the case with most framework directives, it is open to member states to introduce more far-reaching provisions should they wish to do so.

The Government have welcomed the proposal. It is important to establish minimum standards to combat discrimination at work throughout the whole European Community. The key to tackling discrimination, however, is not just the aspiration to end it--an aspiration that we all share. It is essential to ensure workable and proportionate mechanisms that deliver redress effectively. Otherwise, we risk introducing a parody of proper standards and unnecessary litigation. Such an outcome would undermine the confidence of the public, employers and employees, whose support is essential to the effectiveness of the measures.

That principle is in line with our domestic agenda on equality. The Government are strongly committed to combating unjustified discrimination wherever it exists. We have stated that publicly, and it forms a cornerstone of many of our current domestic policies. Unjustified discrimination in work and training can be damaging and wasteful of talent. We are also actively promoting equality and diversity through the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill, which includes a duty on public bodies to promote equality. We will introduce similar measures in sex and disability discrimination legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.

In negotiating the proposal, we are working towards a final text that is clear and workable to the employers, workers and training providers whom it will affect. We want it to take full account of measures already in place, such as our Disability Discrimination Act 1995, the Disability Rights Commission Act 1999 and other disability rights legislation. It is evident both to the Government and to the European Scrutiny Committee that the European Commission's proposal needs to be improved if it is to be clear and fully workable in practice.

The European Scrutiny Committee focused on the potential problems arising from the inclusion in the text of a single instrument such different grounds for discrimination. In particular, that raises problems for discrimination on grounds of age and disability. The Government agree with the Committee in its assessment that the "one size fits all" approach is difficult. The types of discrimination that the proposal seeks to address are different from each other and require differently tailored solutions. The current proposals do not adequately reflect that point.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): On a point of order, Mr. Gale. Am I right in understanding that, in European Committees, the Minister is required to make a short opening statement to advise hon. Members of the business and then to allow questions? The Minister has been speaking for 10 minutes. Does that constitute "short"?

The Chairman: Order. There is no fixed time limit for the Minister. The understanding is that the Minister's statement should take no more than 10 minutes; and she is drawing her remarks to a close.

Ms Jowell: Thank you, Mr. Gale. I have been addressing my remarks to the Committee with an eye on the clock. I wish to give members of the Committee as much information as possible to help their consideration of the proposal.

The issue of what requirements religious organisations can make of their staff has been raised by the European Scrutiny Committee and by many outside organisations. I hope that the Committee will be reassured to learn that we intend to do all that we can to ensure that the proposals are modified so that religious organisations may continue to discriminate on the grounds of religion and belief when it is justifiable to do so.

The European Scrutiny Committee has also expressed concern that loose drafting in the proposal could lead to problems of interpretation and to extensive litigation. We share those concerns. An equality regime that is not clear about what people, especially employers, need to do to comply is likely to be counter-productive.

In discussions with our negotiating partners, we have also been exploring the scope for extending the implementation period, which is currently two years. We attach considerable importance to having a longer transposition period, which would allow time for culture change and change of practice in preparation for the legislation.

In summary, we are pledged to combating discrimination and are generally supportive of the Commission's proposal. However, we are determined to ensure that the proposal is right--that it is clear and workable in practice and that it can be implemented in the United Kingdom in a way that is consistent with our existing equality framework. It is most important that we get the law right in this area if we are to move the cause of equality forwards and not backwards.

 
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