The Equality Act brings together for the first time all the legal requirements on equality that people working in the private, public and voluntary sectors need to know.
It affects equality law at work and in delivering all sorts of services and running clubs. The Act 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
Who the law protects
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 they vary slightly according to whether a person is at work or using a service.
An age group includes people of the same age and people of a particular range of ages. An age group would include "over fifties" or twenty-one year olds. Age equality aims to ensure that in everything we do, we make every effort to eliminate unlawful discrimination and promote equality of opportunity for all age groups. This includes things like improving access to employment to younger and older people and preventing age related discrimination and bullying in services.
The law says that a disabled person is someone with 'a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.' Examples include cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and heart conditions; hearing or sight impairments, or a significant mobility difficulty; and mental health conditions or learning difficulties. However, only the courts can say if a particular individual is defined as disabled under legislation. Disability can mean different things to different people, and can include:
- people who are disabled for a short time or who are disabled for a long time;
- people who have been disabled since they were born and people who became disabled when they were older; and
- people who describe themselves as 'disabled' and people who do not describe themselves as disabled.
This is where a person has proposed, started or completed a process to change his or her sex. A transsexual person also has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.
Marriage and civil partnership
People who are married or have a civil partner are in a marriage or civil partnership. A married man and a woman in a civil partnership both share the protected characteristic of marriage and civil partnership. Civil partners must be treated the same as married couples on a wide range of legal matters. People who are not married or civil partners do not have this characteristic.
Pregnancy and maternity
For women this is when they are pregnant or during maternity, as distinct from their sex, in specified situations outside work. It protects a woman from discrimination because of her current or a previous pregnancy. It also protects her from maternity discrimination, which includes treating her unfavourably because she is breast-feeding, for 26 weeks after giving birth and provides that pregnancy or maternity discrimination as defined cannot be treated as sex discrimination.
Race includes colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins. People who have or share characteristics of colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins can be described as belonging to a particular racial group. A racial group can be made up of two or more different racial groups.
Religion or belief
This may be philosophical belief, or a religion that has a clear structure and belief system. Denominations or sects within a religion can be considered to be a religion or belief, such as Protestants and Catholics within Christianity. It also includes a lack of religion or belief.
This means being a man or a woman, and that men share this characteristic with other men, and women with other women.
This is a person's sexual orientation towards:
- people of the same sex as him or her (in other words the person is a gay man or a lesbian)
- people of the opposite sex from him or her (the person is heterosexual)
- people of both sexes (the person is bisexual).
General and specific duties
The general duty states that a public authority must have due regard to the need to:
- eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation
- advance equality of opportunity; and
- foster good relations.
The specific duty (which only applies to certain bodies that are named in Schedule 19 of the Act) requires South Tyneside Council to demonstrate equality performance by:
- Publishing information to show that we are complying with the general duty (see above) by 31st January 2012. This will include equality information about our employees and other people affected by our policies and practices relating to protected characteristics.
- Publishing our specific and measurable priority equality objectives by 6th April 2012. These will be published as part of our new Single Equality Scheme.
Types of discrimination
The new Act also extends some of these protections to characteristics that previously were not covered by equality legislation. Employers and business owners now need to be aware of the seven different types of discrimination under the new legislation. These are:
- Direct discrimination - where someone is treated less favourably than another person because of a protected characteristic.
- Associative discrimination - this is direct discrimination against someone because they are associated with another person who possesses a protected characteristic.
- Discrimination by perception - this is direct discrimination against someone because others think that they possess a particular protected characteristic. They do not necessarily have to possess the characteristic, just be perceived to.
- Indirect discrimination - this can occur when you have a rule or policy that applies to everyone but disadvantages a person with a particular protected characteristic.
- Harassment - this is behaviour that is deemed offensive by the recipient. Employees can now complain of the behaviour they find offensive even if it is not directed at them.
- Harassment by a third party - employers are potentially liable for the harassment of their staff or customers by people they don't themselves employ, i.e. a contractor.
- Victimisation - this occurs when someone is treated badly because they have made or supported a complaint or grievance under this legislation.
The introduction of this new consolidating piece of legislation gives employers and business owners of all types an ideal opportunity to review and reinforce their equal opportunities and accessibility policies.