What's the public sector equality duty?
The Equality Act 2010 says public authorities must comply with the public sector equality duty. This is in addition to their duty not to discriminate against you.
The duty aims to make sure public authorities think about things like discrimination and the needs of people who are disadvantaged or suffer inequality, when they make decisions about how they provide their services and implement policies.
Read this page to find out more about the public sector equality duty.
What’s the public sector equality duty?
The public sector equality duty is a duty on public authorities to consider or think about how their policies or decisions affect people who are protected under the Equality Act. Private organisations and individuals don’t have to comply with the duty.
If a public authority hasn't properly considered its public sector equality duty, you can challenge it in the courts.
Who is protected under the Equality Act?
People who are protected under the Act have what’s called protected characteristics.
The characteristics that are protected in relation to the public sector equality duty are:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
Marriage and civil partnership are also protected characteristics under the Equality Act but it's not covered by the public sector equality duty.
What’s a public authority?
A public authority is an organisation which carries out public functions or services - for example, a school, the NHS or the police.
What must public authorities do to comply with the duty?
When public authorities carry out their functions, the Equality Act says they must have due regard or think about the need to:
- eliminate unlawful discrimination
- advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who don’t
- foster or encourage good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who don’t
Having due regard means public authorities must consciously consider or think about the need to do the three things set out in the public sector equality duty. It's the courts who decide if a public authority has done enough to comply with the duty.
What’s meant by advancing equality of opportunity?
Some groups of people who share a protected characteristic, like race or sexual orientation, may suffer a particular disadvantage or have particular needs.
The public sector equality duty means public authorities must think about whether they should take action to meet these needs or reduce the inequalities. In doing this, public authorities are allowed to treat some groups more favourably than others.
The Equality Act says public authorities should think about the need to:
- remove or reduce disadvantages suffered by people because of a protected characteristic
- meet the needs of people with protected characteristics
- encourage people with protected characteristics to participate in public life and other activities
You’re a father who cares for your young children. You want to attend the local parents’ support group provided by your local health authority, but you feel it’s not welcoming to fathers as it’s mostly women who go there. You know there are other fathers who would also like to attend these groups but feel the same as you.
Under the public sector equality duty, the health authority should consider whether there's a need to meet the needs of men who care for their children. This could lead the authority to create a specific father's group.
Must public authorities always comply with the public sector equality duty?
There are some situations when public authorities don’t have to comply with the public sector equality duty.
How can the public sector equality duty help you?
If you think you’ve been, or will be, affected by the way a public authority has made a decision about how it delivers its services or implements a policy you may be able to use the public sector equality duty.
You can take action saying a public authority hasn’t properly considered its duty before making a decision or adopting a policy which affects you. You may also be able to use the equality duty to strengthen a discrimination complaint against a public authority.
You’ve been told by one of the teachers at your school to remove a bracelet with religious significance to you as it's not allowed under your school’s uniform policy. You’ve asked the school to make an exception because of your religion, but they’ve refused.
This could be indirect discrimination because of your religion and you could make a discrimination complaint to the school.
You could also complain to the school that they’ve breached their public sector equality duty. They should have considered their duty and in particular the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and meet the needs of people with protected characteristics, when they adopted their school uniform policy. They should also have considered the duty when making the decision not to allow you to wear the bracelet. The relevant protected characteristic here is religion.
Public authorities in Scotland also have specific duties under the Equality Act to help them comply with the public sector equality duty. This includes:
- setting equality objectives
- reporting their progress on meeting these objectives
- assessing new or revised policies and practices - through Equality Impact Assessments
- reviewing existing policies and practices
- publishing information on equality within their own staff, like the gender pay gap
- considering equality factors when they buy goods and services with public funds
If public bodies don't follow these specific duties, their actions can be ruled unlawful by a court. For example, a court decided that South Ayrshire Council acted unlawfully when it closed a day centre for adults with learning disabilities because it didn't do an Equalities Impact Assessment before making the decision. The court ruled that the day centre should stay open.
For more information on the specific duties see the public sector equality duty technical guidance on the Equality and Human Rights Commission website.
Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)
The EASS helpline can provide advice and information on discrimination and human rights issues.
Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)
You can find information about discrimination on the EHRC website.