White men could be stopped from getting jobs under controversial government plans to allow employers to hire ethnic minority and female candidates ahead of them.
Harriet Harman, the Minister for Women, has launched a consultation into proposals to scrap current laws that ban employers from taking race or sex into consideration when interviewing job candidates.
The plan is described as “positive action” rather than “positive discrimination” because it would not allow a candidate with worse job credentials to be given preferential treatment.
Instead, the measure involves giving employers the right to take race or sex into consideration when choosing between candidates with exactly the same qualifications.
The proposed change in the law could also affect universities, allowing them to select more female students in subjects areas such as the sciences where men have traditionally dominated.
Critics insisted these decisions were already being taken by employers and recruitment officers keen to boost numbers of women and ethnic minorities.
However, Miss Harman is said to believe radical action is needed to help all disadvantaged members of the community gain their full potential.
A spokesman for the Federation of Small Business said: “We would urge caution over the prospect of more Government regulation, which always causes problems for small businesses, which do not have human resources departments to steer them through the legal minefields.”
Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP and leading campaigner against all-women shortlists in Parliament, said: “In addition to being superfluous, this law would be detrimental because it suggests that women and members of ethnic minorities need special treatment.
“I have always said that every women MP should be able to look every male MP all the way up to the Prime Minister in the eye and know that she did not get there as a result of special treatment. Women at all levels of business need to be able to say the same thing in the boardroom.”
Meanwhile, Katherine Rake, of the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equal pay, said it was unclear how Miss Harman’s proposals would stand up in court.
Theresa May, the shadow women’s minister, said Miss Harman ought to be concentrating on the real problems facing women in work, such as the gender pay gap.