Harriet Harman has insisted that the Government should push on with its Equality Bill, despite fears about its impact on the economy.
Speaking at a fringe event at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, Miss Harman said that equality is “not something that can be put on the back burner when economic times are difficult”.
Critics of the Bill are concerned about the costly burdens it would place on businesses already under pressure due to the economic downturn.
Miss Harman is believed to have clashed with Business Secretary Lord Mandelson who wants the Bill shelved or its scope reduced.
Business leaders have also spoken out against the Bill and warned of the costs involved in implementing it.
In March the Confederation of British Industry labelled the Bill a “regulatory big stick”.
In her speech Miss Harman admitted that for businesses the Bill would “really set the cat amongst the pigeons”.
But she insisted the recession made equality legislation more necessary than ever.
Business leaders have not been alone in voicing concerns about the impact of the Equality Bill.
When the Bill was first introduced to the House of Commons, opposition MPs said it reflected Miss Harman’s own “politically correct extremism” and “trendy, left-wing prejudices”.
In June Communities Minister John Denham suggested the Bill’s unpopularity could damage Labour’s election hopes.
Health workers and insurance brokers have also spoken out, while religious groups fear that several new proposals in the Bill could restrict their freedoms.
The Bill’s explanatory notes make it clear that churches will be forced to consider practising homosexuals for youth worker posts and similar roles if the Bill becomes law.
And public bodies’ responsibility to “drive equality” could see funding withheld from Christian businesses and charities which refuse to promote politically correct causes.
Miss Harman told her audience in Brighton the flourishing economies of the future would be ones that “understand the talents and abilities of everybody, that look to what everybody can contribute to the workforce and are not stuck in the past”.
She added that equality is “not something that can be put on the back burner when economic times are difficult”.
“In fact it is when economic times are difficult that it is even more important that we have equality and fairness and people feel that we are all in it together and everyone can pull together.”