General Duty FAQs (for GB)

Advice and Guidance

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This page sets out a range of frequently asked questions (FAQs) on the general duty. These are relevant to England, Scotland and Wales. 

The equality duty was created by the Equality Act 2010 and replaces the race, disability and gender equality duties. The duty came into force in April 2011 and covers age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. It applies in England, Scotland and in Wales. The general equality duty is set out in section 149 of the Equality Act. In summary, those subject to the general equality duty must have due regard to the need to:

  • Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation
  • Advance equality of opportunity between different groups
  • Foster good relations between different groups

The duty to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination also covers marriage and civil partnership.

The Equality Duty covers: age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. The duty to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination also covers marriage and civil partnerships.

There are two ways that a body can be subject to the general equality duty. Those bodies listed in Schedule 19 of the Equality Act 2010 are subject to the general duty. In addition, any organisation which carries out a public function is subject to the general duty. In this situation, the duty will only apply to the organisation's public functions, not to any private functions it carries out. The list of bodies which are subject to the general duty found in Schedule 19 includes key public authorities like local authorities, health, transport and education bodies, the police, the armed forces and central government departments. The list includes many of the same bodies which were previously covered by the race, disability and gender equality duties.

A private (or a voluntary) body is subject to the general duty in respect of any public functions which it has. The duty only applies to those functions, not to any private functions the organisation carries out. For example, if a security firm has a contract with a public body to transport prisoners, this function would be covered by the general duty, but any security work it undertakes for a supermarket would not be covered.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is responsible for enforcing the equality duty. The Commission may seek to take steps to encourage compliance by public body, before moving to enforcement, where appropriate. The Commission has a number of special statutory powers that it is able to use to enforce the specific duties and the general duty. Both the Commission and affected persons can apply to the High Court for a judicial review in respect of a failure to comply with the general duty.

Single-sex services are lawful in certain specified circumstances under the Equality Act 2010. The Act provides that the prohibition of sex discrimination does not apply where services are provided exclusively to one sex, as long as to do so is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, and at least one of the conditions set out below applies:

  • Only people of that sex need the service. For example, post-natal exercise classes can be provided to women only, since only women need the service.
  • Where the service is also provided jointly for both sexes, an additional service exclusively for one sex will be lawful if the joint provision would not be sufficiently effective. For example, a new fathers' support group is provided by a health authority as there is insufficient attendance by men at the new parents support group.
  • If a service was provided for men and women jointly it would not be as effective and the level of need for the services makes it not reasonably practicable to provide separate services for each sex. For example, a women-only support unit for women who have experienced domestic or sexual violence can be set up, even if there is no parallel men-only unit because of insufficient demand
  • The service is provided at a hospital or other place where users need special care, supervision or attention. For example, single-sex wards in hospitals and nursing homes and single-sex facilities in mental health facilities.
  • The service is for, or is likely to be used by, more than one person at the same time and a woman might reasonably object to the presence of a man (or vice versa). For example, separate male and female changing rooms or any service involving intimate personal health or hygiene.
  • The service is likely to involve physical contact between the service user and another person and that other person might reasonably object if the user is of the opposite sex. For example, sports sessions involving a high degree of physical contact such as judo or self-defence classes.

The objections above must be 'reasonable'. So a low degree of physical contact is unlikely to justify separate provision. For example, the fact that in first aid training there may be some physical contact between women and men in the classes is unlikely to warrant the provision of single-sex sessions. Similarly, where a person exercising public functions does anything in relation to the provision of single-sex services this will be lawful provided that one of the above conditions is met, and that such provision is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. For example, a primary care trust contracting with a voluntary sector organisation to provide counselling for women who have had a mastectomy.

The public sector Equality Duty does not mean that single sex services should be cut, have funding withdrawn or that any new services should not be funded. Neither does it mean that services should necessarily be provided on the same scale for both men and women. For example, because women make up the majority of victims of domestic violence and rape it may not be appropriate for a local council to fund or provide refuge services on an equal basis for men and for women, as set out in the example above. Further information on this can be found in the Commission's guidance on the Equality Act.

The equality duty covers the protected characteristic of age, which refers to a person having a particular age (for example, 32 year olds) or being within an age group (for example, 18-30 year-olds). This includes all ages, including children and young people.

There is an exemption: the equality duty does not apply to age with regard to education and service provision in schools or in relation to children's homes.

Provisions to ban discrimination because of age in relation to services came into force in October 2012.

Under the equality duty, registered providers of social housing (registered providers) are not listed for the general equality duty (under schedule 19 of the Equality Act 2010). They are therefore not listed for the specific duties (under Schedule 1 of the specific duties regulations).

The general equality duty also applies to certain private or voluntary sector bodies when they are carrying out public functions. This is where an organisation is exercising a function which would otherwise be exercised by the state and where individuals have to rely upon that person for the exercise of that function. This applies to 'any person who has functions of a public nature. The definition is very similar for the disability and the gender duties. This is the same approach as the definition of public authorities used by the Human Rights Act 1998. Whether or not an organisation is covered by this definition is a matter for the courts to decide.

The question of whether a registered provider is covered by the general equality duty is determined by whether they carry out any public functions. The Commission is unable to comment on the status of individual organisations, as this is a decision for the courts. We advise housing providers who are unsure whether they are carrying out public functions, to safeguard their position by ensuring they comply with the general duty in relation to those functions. Registered providers may also find it useful to seek legal advice on this matter.

Remember that the general equality duty applies only to public functions, not to everything that a registered provider does. Examples of public functions include: allocation of housing, transfer and exchange of properties, setting rent levels, complaints procedures, tenant participation, consulting and informing tenants, setting terms of tenancy, and the termination of tenancies. It also includes the establishment and application of policies and procedures regarding anti-social behaviour and parenting orders.

Meeting the general equality duty for a public function requires registered providers to identify and tackle persistent and long standing disadvantage within that function.

Remember that any organisation (including a registered provider) is welcome to use or adapt the framework of the equality duty, whether or not they are covered by it. The Commission would urge any organisation that seeks to advance equality to use this approach.

Because the general equality duty requires you to analyse the effect of your organisation's functions on all protected groups, public authorities will not be able to meet the duty unless they have enough usable information.

If public authorities have not yet achieved a culture where employees or service users are ready to be asked about their sexual orientation, gender identity or religion or belief, they should take steps to engender a culture of trust in which this information could be collected. There may be other means of identifying the issues faced. Analysing national or local research and engagement with people from those groups can be useful for identifying potential issues of concern.

If this information is collected, it is important to explain why the information is being collected, what it will be used for, and how privacy will be protected.

The general equality duty also applies to organisations who exercise public functions. This will include private bodies or voluntary organisations which are carrying out public functions on behalf of a public authority. The Equality Act defines a public function as a function of a public nature for the purposes of the Human Rights Act 1998. An example of this would be a private company running a prison on behalf of the government. The company would, however, only be covered by the general equality duty with regard to its public functions, but not for their other work, like providing security services for a supermarket.

The general equality duty applies to procurement and commissioning by Schedule 19 authorities.

The general equality duty also applies to bodies which are carrying out public functions (in relation to those functions only). For those authorities, the general equality duty will also apply to their procurement and commissioning, in so far as procurement and commissioning are part of the exercise of those public functions.

The requirement to comply with the general equality duty applies to all procurement regardless of the value; the value of the contract may, however, impact upon the relevance and proportionality of equality considerations.

The general equality duty requires public authorities to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination; advance equality of opportunity; and foster good relations – when making decisions and setting policies. To do this, it is necessary for the organisation to understand the potential effects of its activities on different people. Where these are not immediately apparent, it may be necessary to carry out some form of assessment or analysis, in order to understand them.

Case law sets out some very clear guidance on what organisations need to do in order to have ‘due regard’. This will be relevant to the equality duty. In particular, decision-makers need to:

  • be aware of their responsibilities under the duty
  • make sure they have adequate evidence (including from consultation, if appropriate ) to enable them to understand the potential effects of their decisions on different people covered by the duty
  • consciously and actively consider the relevant matters, in such a way that it influences decision-making
  • do this before and at the time a decision is taken, not after the event
  • be aware that the duty can’t be delegated to third parties who are carrying out functions on their behalf

Case law also suggests that it is good practice to document how decisions were reached.

Yes, but there are some exceptions. Although having either migrant, refugee or asylum seeker status is not a protected characteristic, it is likely that any discriminatory treatment would be treated as racial discrimination, most typically with regard to 'nationality'.

The exceptions are in relation to immigration and nationality functions. Public authorities carrying out immigration or nationality functions are not required to have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity in relation to age; religion or belief or race (where race means nationality or ethnic or national origins). However, they are required to have due regard to the fostering of good relations and to the elimination of discrimination and other conduct prohibited by the Act, in carrying out those functions.

The Equality Act includes exceptions which mean that certain immigration decisions can be made in relation to: disability; race (where race means nationality or ethnic or national origins); and religion or belief, without being unlawful under the Act. Common examples are: decisions on entry clearance, and additional questioning for different protected characteristics.

There are also exceptions which allow direct or indirect nationality discrimination, or indirect discrimination based on place of residence/length of residence, when it is done to comply with another law or ministerial arrangement – i.e where the public authority has no choice other than to act in a certain way. Examples include: decisions about placing people on housing registers, and charging non UK residents for NHS treatment.

Treatment covered by these exceptions does not count as discrimination, or prohibited conduct prohibited by the Act, and so authorities are not under a duty to have due regard to the need to eliminate them.

As part of their obligation to have due regard, authorities need to understand the impact of their policies and practices on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom face significant disadvantage and social exclusion. Since there are significant gaps in available data regarding the experiences and needs of refugees and migrants, it is likely that engaging directly with refugees and migrants and their representative groups will be helpful.

This can be a concern as some public bodies feel that they are intruding into the private lives of individuals. Collecting evidence is useful in order to understand the composition and experiences of your service users and your workforce. This evidence can also be used to identify the impact of your policies and practices on people on the grounds of their sexual orientation. For example, it can help you to understand any specific health needs of lesbian patients or to establish any workplace issues affecting bisexual staff. Without sound evidence gathering and analysis, policy may be developed on the basis of assumptions.

Public bodies can take steps to collect this information. Numerous organisations are already taking this approach. You can help to alleviate concerns by explaining why the data is being collected and what it will be used for. It is also critical that public bodies maintain confidentiality by designing and implementing clear procedures for protecting the privacy of individuals.

Stonewall have produced a useful guide which sets out why equality monitoring is important.

Last updated: 13 Oct 2020

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

Phone: 0808 800 0082

You can email using the contact form on the EASS website.

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