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Background to the equality duty

The public sector equality duty has its foundation in the public inquiry into the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. The subsequent report, published in 1999 by Sir William Macpherson, made over 70 recommendations and concluded that the Metropolitan Police Service was 'institutionally racist' in its investigation of the murder.

It was clear that a radical rethink was needed in the approach that public sector organisations took towards addressing discrimination and racism – that the onus needed to shift from individuals to organisations, placing for the first time an obligation on public authorities to positively promote equality, not merely to avoid discrimination. This obligation initially took the form of the race equality duty in 2001, followed by the disability equality duty in 2006, and the gender equality duty in 2007.

Today's equality duty was developed to harmonise the above three equality duties and to extend it across all protected characteristics - age, disability, sex, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation. It was created under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 and came into force on 5 April 2011.

The public sector equality duty requires public bodies to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between different people when carrying out their activities. It also covers marriage and civil partnerships, but only with regard to eliminating unlawful discrimination in employment.

The broad purpose of the equality duty is to integrate consideration of equality and good relations into the day-to-day business of public authorities. If you do not consider how a function can affect different groups in different ways, it is unlikely to have the intended effect. This can contribute to greater inequality and poor outcomes. The general equality duty therefore requires organisations to consider how they could positively contribute to the advancement of equality and good relations. It requires equality considerations to be reflected into the design of policies and the delivery of services, including internal policies, and for these issues to be kept under review.

Compliance with the general equality duty is a legal obligation, but it also makes good business sense. An organisation that is able to provide services to meet the diverse needs of its users should find that it carries out its core business more efficiently. A workforce that has a supportive working environment is more productive. Many organisations have also found it beneficial to draw on a broader range of talent and to better represent the community that they serve. It should also result in better informed decision-making and policy development. Overall, it can lead to services that are more appropriate to the user, and services that are more effective and cost-effective. This can lead to increased satisfaction with public services.

Last updated: 11 Mar 2019