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Brussels ushers in equality laws

A NEW wave of equal opportunity employment laws is on its way from Brussels. Legislation to combat discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, religion or belief must be introduced by December 2003. Anti-age discrimination measures will be required by 2006.

The Government is drawing up the new laws in response to the European Union directive on equal treatment. Consultation on how to deal with the first three types of discrimination should be completed this month.

Age discrimination is seen as a more difficult nut to crack, and consultation has been left until later this year. Draft regulations dealing with sexual orientation apply to heterosexuals, bisexuals and homosexuals. They cover not only recruitment but promotion, training, discipline and dismissal.

The definition of harassment has been extended to include behaviour that violates a person's dignity or creates a hostile environment. It will be up to schools to prove that no discrimination occurred if a complaint is made.

The draft regulations concerning religion or belief do not contain a list of faiths. Employment tribunals will have to determine whether particular religious movements should be included.

It will be unlawful, as it is in Northern Ireland, for a school to discriminate directly or indirectly against job applicants or employees on religious grounds. However, exceptions are made for faith school employers because religious belief is seen as a "genuine occupational requirement" in some cases.

Pressure to speed up the consultation on age discrimination will have been increased by an employment tribunal's recent decision that forced retirement at 65 is contrary to European law. An appeal has been lodged, but there may be far-reaching consequences for schools.

Draft regulations on www.dti.gov.uk erequalityindex.htm

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