Q What is the Equality Act 2006 about?
A The Equality Act, which received Royal Assent on 16 February 2006, has three main purposes:
- To establish the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR)
- To make discrimination unlawful on the grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, facilities and services, the disposal and management of premises, education, and the exercise of public functions
- To create a duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between men and women, and to prohibit sex discrimination in the exercise of public functions.
Q What does this mean in practice?
A The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has called it the most significant change in gender equality legislation for 30 years.
Warning: The Equality Act 2006 has been replaced by new legislation.
The Equality Act 2010 has consolidated existing equality law into a single piece of legislation and has introduced a number of reforms, including widening the scope for associative discrimination and discrimination based on perceived protected characteristics.
Find out more about the Equality Act 2010 here, or use the resources below:
All public sector bodies will have a general duty in the exercise of their public functions to pay due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, and to promote equality between men and women, known as the Gender Equality Duty (GED). This will affect all of their activities, from the provision of bus services to social care.
Public authorities will also have specific duties that will impact them in their capacity as employers. These will be set out in regulations, but will include identifying gender equality goals and showing the action they will take to implement them. These will then need to be published, monitored and reviewed every three years.
Public authorities will therefore need to ensure they take active steps to eliminate sources of discrimination in their own employment practices, for example, by ensuring the proportion of women they employ at a senior level is appropriate, or that they pay their workforce in accordance with the equal pay laws. Rather than wait for claims to be made, employers will need to investigate proactively and take action to correct inequalities.
Q What do employers need to do?
A Affected employers will need to review every aspect of their employment practices and processes, from recruitment (for example, ensuring jobs are advertised in places where they will be seen by both genders), to terms and conditions (for example, carrying out equal pay audits), access to promotion and training (for example, ensuring training is actively offered on an equal basis) and, of course, dismissal.
It is likely that a wider range of information and statistics about employment practices than before will need to be collected so that employers can monitor and demonstrate that they are complying with the GED. This could include not just statistics on the gender mix of the workforce as a whole, but also information about equal pay, sexual harassment, occupational segregation, promotion and development opportunities and family-friendly working arrangements.
Q So can private sector employers ignore the Equality Act?
A If only it were that simple. While there is no direct duty imposed on private sector employers, they may be caught by the Act’s ripple effect. The most likely impact will be felt by private sector employers that are involved in the supply to public bodies of any goods or services or involved in the sub-contracting of local authority services, such as cleaning, home care or security. In seeking to comply with the GED, public bodies are likely in future to make gender equality a condition, or at least a substantial factor, in tender specifications. So, for example, they may contain a stipulation that all contractors must carry out an equal pay audit and confirm they have removed any inequalities arising from that audit. The absence of such confirmation could disqualify the contractor from winning the tender.
Q What will the CEHR do?
A When the Act comes into force, the CEHR will be responsible for promoting understanding of equality and human rights issues and for challenging unlawful discrimination. It will initially replace the existing equality bodies, the EOC and Disability Rights Commission, and will take over the functions of the Commission for Racial Equality in April 2009. It will also have responsibility for promoting other specific areas of discrimination (sexual orientation, religion or belief and age) and will have a wider general remit to promote human rights and equality generally, even those areas not covered by specific pieces of legislation.
Q When does the Act come into effect?
A Don’t worry – you have more than a year to get ready for the Act. Although it has received Royal Assent, its principal provisions, including the GED, do not come into force until 6 April 2007. The CEHR will be established from October 2007.
Q Will there be any guidance on how to comply with the Act?
A The EOC has already begun an online consultation, which lasts until 15 May, about a Code of Practice. It is also holding a series of events during February and March 2006 to explain the details and implications of the legislation and to enable discussion and feedback.
By Richard Linskell, partner, Dawsons