Equity Law Would End Restricted Membership in England


LONDON -- A new law proposed by Britain's government Tuesday would guarantee female club members the same access as men, spelling an end to discrimination on British golf courses and restricted membership at exclusive clubs that cater to some of the country's leading politicians.
The Single Equality Bill is an attempt to consolidate Britain's web of discrimination laws, spread over nine major pieces of legislation instituted over the past 40 years. It also provides additional protection to disabled tenants, elderly credit card holders and breast-feeding mothers.
'Laws have been introduced in a piecemeal fashion and have as a result become overlapping and less clear,' Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly said in a statement. 'We (had) this review to ensure the laws which govern how people are treated in their everyday lives are as clear and effective as possible.'
Discrimination on the grounds of race and gender was outlawed in the 1970s. Protection was extended to the disabled in the 1990s, and, more recently, to sexual orientation and religious belief.
The step-by-step nature of the legislation has left gaps and inconsistencies in the level of protection, said Tufyal Choudhury, chairman of the Discrimination Law Association.
Religious discrimination, for example, was until recently only prohibited in employment -- while it has long been illegal to discriminate on racial grounds in certain kinds of businesses.
Although the bill is aimed at consolidating existing legislation, it also covers new ground, factoring in private golf and social clubs that offer women only restricted membership. Among the most notable is London's Carlton Club, a high-class hangout for conservative politicians.
Established in 1832, the club has admitted women as 'associate members' since 1977 -- meaning they pay no entry fee, but cannot knock back cocktails at the members' bar or vote in general meetings. Mary Sharp, the club's assistant secretary and a nonmember, said the rules were written 'donkey's years ago' and that many in the club would welcome the change.
Similar arrangements at some golf clubs -- where women are restricted to playing certain days or barred from the clubhouse -- would also be made obsolete.
The rules would not, however, cover clubs that cater exclusively to men or women, such as White's, in London, which counts opposition leader David Cameron as a member. The bill was about tackling unequal treatment rather than forcing men and women to mix, said a spokesman for Britain's communities department who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with the agency's policies.
Sex, age and disability discrimination also are addressed by the bill. Under the proposed rules, disabled tenants gain the right to force their landlords to make adjustments to the common areas of rented properties -- such as stairs, hallways and entrances -- while elderly citizens cannot be denied loans or store credit cards on the grounds of age. Another rule would guarantee women the right to breastfeed in public.
Britain's ruling Labour party has made the rationalization of the country's discrimination law one of its priorities, and is working to combine the country's Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality into a single body by the end of this year.
The bill published Tuesday is being made available for a period of consultation, during which time the public and interest groups can give their input. A draft version of the bill is expected later this year or next.
At the Gay Hill Golf Club in central England -- the subject of a media storm seven years ago over its refusal to allow a female golfer to sit at the bar -- Michael Endall, the chairman, said it was time to move on.
He said the club now allows all members to socialize over drinks, and women can now serve on the club's board.
'We're in the year 2007.' Endall said. 'It's time that everyone understood it.'
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