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Equality and Diversity legislation


The history of Equality and Diversity legislation begins in 1970 with the Equal Pay Act, and takes us right up to the present day.

The Equality Act 2010

  • The Act brings together for the first time all the legal requirements on equality that the private, public and voluntary sectors need to follow.
  • It affects equality law at work and in delivering all sorts of services and running clubs.
  • It replaces all the existing equality law including:
    • The Equal Pay Act 1970
    • The Sex Discrimination Act 1975
    • The Race Relations Act 1976
    • The Disability Discrimination Act 1995
  • Most of the new law is based on current legislation which has been streamlined but there are some important differences, which are set out in these Modules. 
    Who the law protects
  • Whether at work as an employee or in using a service, the message (or purpose) of the Equality Act is that everyone has the right to be treated fairly at work or when using services.
  • It protects people from discrimination on the basis of certain characteristics. These are known as protected characteristics and vary slightly according to whether a person at work or using a service.

The protected characteristics

There are 9 protected characteristics:

AgeWhere this is referred to, it refers to a person belonging to a particular age (e.g. 32 year olds) or range of ages (e.g. 18 - 30 year olds).
DisabilityA person has a disability if s/he has a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on that person's ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.
Marriage and Civil PartnershipMarriage is defined as a 'union between a man and a woman'. Same-sex couples can have their relationships legally recognised as 'civil partnerships'. Civil partners must be treated the same as married couples on a wide range of legal matters.
Gender reassignmentThe process of transitioning from one gender to another.
Pregnancy and maternityPregnancy is the condition of being pregnant or expecting a baby. Maternity refers to the period after the birth, and is linked to maternity leave in the employment context. In the non-work context, protection against maternity discrimination is for 26 weeks after giving birth, and this includes treating a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding.
RaceRefers to the protected characteristic of Race. It refers to a group of people defined by their race, colour, and nationality (including citizenship) ethnic or national origins.
Religion and beliefReligion has the meaning usually given to it but belief includes religious and philosophical beliefs including lack of belief (e.g. Atheism). Generally, a belief should affect your life choices or the way you live for it to be included in the definition.
Sex (gender)A man or a woman.
Sexual OrientationWhether a person's sexual attraction is towards their own sex, the opposite sex or to both sexes.

You can see a more in-depth definition of these protected characteristics on the Office of Public Sector Information.

Public Sector Equality Duty

The public sector equality duty consists of a general equality duty, which is set out in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 itself, and the specific duties which came into law on the 10th September 2011. The general equality duty came into force on 5 April 2011.

In summary, those subject to the equality duty must, in the exercise of their functions, have due regard to the need to:

  • Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act.
  • Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
  • Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.

These are sometimes referred to as the three aims or arms of the general equality duty. The Act helpfully explains that having due regard for advancing equality involves:

  • Removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by people due to their protected characteristics.
  • Taking steps to meet the needs of people from protected groups where these are different from the needs of other people. 
  • Encouraging people from protected groups to participate in public life or in other activities where their participation is disproportionately low.

The Act states that meeting different needs involves taking steps to take account of disabled people's disabilities. It describes fostering good relations as tackling prejudice and promoting understanding between people from different groups. It states that compliance with the duty may involve treating some people more favourably than others.

The new duty covers the following eight protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. Public authorities also need to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination against someone because of their marriage or civil partnership status. This means that the first arm of the duty applies to this characteristic but that the other arms (advancing equality and fostering good relations) do not apply.

Equality and Human Rights Commission Government Equality Office