updated 4/27/2009 4:20:46 PM ET 2009-04-27T20:20:46

Is the end near for the English gentleman of privilege?

Britain has proposed an affirmative action bill meant to tackle thorny class divisions and encourage equal opportunities for women and minorities — a proposal already causing an uproar in some circles.

Under the proposed act, white male job applicants could lose out to women and minorities with equal qualifications, while private companies with 250 employees or more would be required to disclose salary discrepancies between male and female employees.

Although no date has been set for parliamentary debate, the Labour-led government hopes to push the bill through before next year's general election. The bill, which would collect a raft of anti-discrimination provisions in a single act, would likely fail under a Conservative-led government.

"The economies of the future that will prosper are the ones which are not blinkered, held back by old-fashioned hierarchies, by a sense of women knowing their place, by overlooking the talents and abilities of people on the basis of the color of their skin," Equalities Minister Harriet Harman said Monday when the bill was published.

Business leaders: Bad timing
Business leaders say the proposals are ill-timed, as industries grapple with the recession.

"This bill will discourage job creation and make employers fearful of the recruitment process," said David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. "Coupled with the 50 percent tax rate, this sends a poor message about doing business in the UK."

The United States was one of the first countries to pass affirmative action legislation — measures originally designed encourage the hiring of blacks, who had been subject to large-scale discrimination. The programs were later extended to women and other minorities.

Britain's bill takes that one step further by addressing long-standing inequalities between the classes — divisions that go back centuries.

Class divisions are entrenched in Britain, with many of the highly paid, prestigious jobs still going to an aristocracy of Cambridge or Oxford graduates. Eton College, an all-boys school that was once referred to as "the chief nurse of England's statesmen," still produces many of Britain's top conservative politicians.

The government says parents in lower classes are often cheated of opportunities for their children. Government statistics show some more capable children from poor backgrounds are often eclipsed by wealthier children.

All-male clubs couldn't discriminate
Under the bill, all-male clubs would still be allowed, but they could not discriminate against racial or ethnic minorities. Some private clubs that have both men and women as members would be required to treat both sexes the same — for example allowing women to play golf on the same days as men.

The Carlton Club — an elite gentleman's club with ties to the Conservative Party — changed its rules to grant Margaret Thatcher membership when she became prime minister. White's, the most traditional of the gentlemen's clubs in London, still has a "no women" policy after 300 years.

"Our aristocracy is not fixed — it has been replaced to some extent with wealth and celebrity — but who you know still often means more than what you know," said Patrick Cracroft-Brennan, editor of Cracroft's Peerage, an electronic reference guide to Britain's aristocracy.

A prominent part of the bill is devoted to closing pay gaps between men and women.

In Britain, women still earn about 22 percent less per hour than men, one of the largest discrepancies in Europe. In Sweden, the discrepancy is 16.3 percent; in Spain, 17 percent; and in Italy, about 20 percent.

Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission has reported pay gaps of up to 60 percent in the financial services sector. The gaps in annual bonuses were as high as 79 percent.

Pay gap reports
The bill will require companies with 250 or more employees to report gender pay discrepancies, but Harman said the requirement will only take effect in 2013 — and only if companies aren't complying voluntarily. Public sector disclosures on pay gaps could be required before 2013.

"This bill needs to contain real action to actually clamp down on discrimination, rather than exercises in box-ticking without proper enforcement," said Theresa May, a Conservative lawmaker.

Employers would also be allowed to give hiring preference to a member of a minority when they have a choice between candidates who are equally qualified. Minorities are still 13 percent less likely to find work than their white counterparts, government figures show, although the bill would not set quotas.

In Norway, which requires company boards and government agencies to have a certain number of women, salaries are public records. The same is true in Sweden.

Secrecy clauses on salaries would also be outlawed under Britain's Equality Bill, and age discrimination would be banned in and outside the work place. Travel and motor insurance companies, for example, would be prohibited from denying insurance solely based on age.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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