Using section 23 agreements to help organisations improve their approach to equality

Published: 25 Aug 2021

As the regulatory body responsible for enforcing the Equality Act 2010 (‘the Equality Act’) we have a range of powers available to us. We often use our power to enter into legally binding agreements. These are known as ‘section 23’ agreements because that is the section in the Equality Act 2006 that the power comes from.  

By agreeing to a section 23 agreement, an organisation commits to not breaching equality law, usually in a specific area where there have been previous concerns.

What section 23 agreements include

The agreement generally includes an action plan to help address the issues which may have led to unlawful conduct (such as discriminatory behaviour) occurring. The organisation then commits to delivering it over a set period of time.

Each action plan will differ depending on the issues involved, but usually they include requirements like providing equality training for staff and implementing new policies and procedures.

When we can use this power

We can enter into a section 23 agreement when we have evidence that an organisation may have breached the Equality Act. Although some agreements are signed following a court judgment, we do not need a judicial finding that an unlawful act has occurred before we enter into an agreement with an organisation.

When deciding whether to approach an organisation to enter into an agreement, we consider a number of factors, including:

For example, over the last few years we’ve had a focus on tackling harassment in the workplace. We have published detailed guidance for employers on what they should do to protect their employees from harassment, including sexual harassment.

We’ve also signed section 23 agreements with several organisations that had received Employment Tribunal judgments against them in relation to harassment, such as the DWP, Highways England and Sainsbury's.

Section 23 agreements are legally enforceable and we will initiate court action to enforce an agreement if we need to.

Why we use this power

We always remember that we are accountable to the public and we need to work as effectively as possible to make Britain fairer. We have a range of regulatory tools and we must consider what will be the most proportionate response to the situation. Section 23 agreements can also be more cost effective than launching a lengthy formal investigation or taking court action.

Regular monitoring and feedback mean we can address any potential problems with delivering the action plan early on. It also means we can support the organisation to do the right thing.

Generally, organisations are keen to work with us to improve. Most organisations don’t want to act, or be seen to act, in a discriminatory way. Most are committed to making sure they are doing the best they can to improve outcomes for their staff, member, guests or customers.

What happens if we can’t reach an agreement

Sometimes we approach an organisation because we think there’s been a breach of equality law but they don’t engage with us. It is voluntary for an organisation to enter into a section 23 agreement. If an organisation does not work with us, we will consider using our other legal or regulatory powers.

In 2021 we concluded an investigation into Elite CarePlus Ltd and found they had acted unlawfully by asking pre-employment questions about candidates’ health and disability. We were given evidence that Elite CarePlus may have been breaking the law. We offered to work with them through a section 23 agreement rather than continuing with our investigation. They refused to do this, so they were subjected to a formal investigation and a finding of unlawful behaviour.

Read more about our investigation into Elite CarePlus Ltd

Why organisations can benefit from working with us on an agreement

If we carry out a formal investigation and potentially find unlawful acts have taken place, this is likely to be a lot more disruptive and damaging to an organisation than if they work with us through a section 23 agreement. Developing good practices that strengthen equality and diversity can also reduce the risk of expensive legal action and reputational damage. Our experience is that organisations who work with us can also improve staff engagement scores and reduce complaints and grievances.

Letting us know about a potential breach

We are a prescribed whistleblowing organisation, so if an employee has information that their employer is breaching equality law they can report their concerns to us.

For example, in the Pontins case we received information from a whistleblower employed by the holiday company. They alleged that the company used a discriminatory booking policy which excluded Gypsies and Travellers.

Our previous section 23 agreements have been based on evidence from a range of sources, including court judgments, whistleblower complaints and submissions to us.

Lawyers and other advice providers can also contact us about potential breaches that might be addressed through a section 23 agreement.

We rely on people and legal advisers letting us know about potentially unlawful activity to progress equality and eliminate discrimination in organisations.

Don't hesitate to contact us if you think we need to take action.