Historically, the UK led the way in Europe in relation to key equality issues by implementing anti-race and sex discrimination laws and equal pay legislation in the seventies and then anti-disability discrimination in the mid-nineties.
However, the European Union (EU) has played a significant role in protecting and developing those legal rights and driving forward the pace of change on wider equality issues, says Suzanne Horne, Partner and Employment Lawyer at Paul Hastings LLP.
She spoke to us about the potential issues Brexit could have on the workplace: “In essence, the EU has acted and continues to act as the catalyst for change. For example, European Court of Justice (ECJ) decisions have historically expanded protection in relation to sex discrimination and discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity and, more latterly, associative discrimination.
“The potential impact of the Brexit vote on equality issues can be most clearly seen when looking at the issue of gender equality on boards. Although female representation is improving, there is still significant progress to be made. The reality is that today there are just six women running FTSE 100 companies and when we leave the EU, the UK will no longer be required to implement the EU directive on gender balance on Boards.
“Despite this rather gloomy outlook, we also need to take into account the current state of our discrimination laws and the so-called Great Repeal Bill. Much of the protection from discrimination today is enshrined in the Equality Act 2010; something which, as primary legislation, will remain in force even when the European Communities Act 1972 is repealed under the Great Repeal Bill. This will enshrine all existing EU law into British law immediately prior to Brexit and end the jurisdiction of the ECJ in the UK.
“It is vital that the UK maintains minimum employment protections to ensure it is able to remain a strong trading partner for our European neighbours. Therefore it is unlikely, although not impossible, that a future government would seek to overturn this. Yet there is potential for the UK to impose caps on compensation for discrimination claims or to interpret legislation in a way that is not equality-friendly and, importantly, there will no longer be an appeal to Europe to apply a ‘check and balance’.
“Undoubtedly the most significant impact of Brexit on discrimination laws and equality issues in the UK will be the removal of the impetus for change and the inevitable shift in focus to the economic uncertainties resulting from this process. Some of the likely measures anticipated above will be welcomed by employers, but uncertainty can also create challenges for employers in the UK and internationally when trying to keep abreast of developments. Global employers are well advised to continue to focus on their HR contingency planning and communications process as it promises to be a rocky road ahead.”