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Everyone should be treated equally in the workplace and in all public spaces, and no one should be put at a substantial disadvantage on the basis of their age, disability, gender identity, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity status, sex, sexual orientation, religion or belief, or race. That is the fundamental basis of the Equality Act 2010. But what is the Equality Act? Why was it introduced? And who is protected by the Equality Act 2010? Here’s everything you need to know:
What is the Equality Act?
The Equality Act 2010 is an act of Parliament in the United Kingdom. It is a single Act that was introduced to replace all other anti-discrimination laws in the UK, with the intention of making it easier to protect people from discrimination both in the workplace and in wider society, in a more streamlined way. There were numerous prior acts that dealt with equality in the UK, which meant understanding the law, and the obligations you had as a business, very convoluted. The Equality Act 2010 has also strengthened the protection offered from discrimination and harassment in some cases, by more clearly setting out the ways in which it is illegal to treat those people who are protected by the Act.
In short, The Equality Act 2010 protects you from discrimination by employers; businesses and organisations which provide goods or services. Whilst elements of the Equality Act were introduced in October 2010, the law came into full force in April 2011, to give businesses and public organisations the time to prepare for the new laws and ensure that they were fully compliant.
If you work in the public arena, either on a paid or voluntary basis, then you have obligations under the Equality Act and it’s important that you understand them. The Act applies to all organisations that provide a service to the public or a section of the public (service providers), as well as anyone who sells goods or provides facilities. It doesn’t matter whether you charge for the use of your facilities or services. If you operate them in the public domain, then you should ensure that everyone can access them equally and are treated fairly under the Equality Act.
Why was the Equality Act Introduced?
The Equality Act was introduced to protect people from discrimination, harassment, and victimisation. Everyone in the UK is protected under the Equality Act 2010 because we fall under one or more of the nine protected characteristics. If you feel you have been discriminated against on the basis of your sex, age, race, religion, or any of the nine characteristics protected by the Equality Act 2010 then you have been treated unlawfully, and are protected by the law.
The three main aims of the Equality Act are:
- To eliminate the discrimination, harassment and victimisation of all individuals categorised as demonstrating a protected characteristic.
- To ensure that people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it are given equal opportunities to succeed and to access spaces within the public arena.
- To foster good relationships amongst all individuals with protected characteristics, and to build good relationships between individuals who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it.
The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination in almost all public arenas, with separate laws governing what people can and cannot say, and under what grounds, in private homes and spaces. Within the public forum, the Equality Act will protect you when:
- You are in the workplace or seeking employment.
- You are using public services. This includes accessing healthcare, education, and council services, or having contact with government departments.
- You access businesses and organisations that provide both services and goods. Examples of this include retail centres and shops, restaurants, leisure centres and public swimming pools, theatres and cinemas.
- When you are using transport and accessing transport clubs including, but not limited to, buses and bus stations, trains and train stations, planes and airports.
- When you join clubs or associations. This includes but is not limited to local sports clubs or leisure centres, or community groups such as the Women’s Institute.
Who is Protected by the Equality Act?
The concept of the Equality Act 2010 is to ensure that everyone is treated equally which means that, in real terms, everyone in the UK is protected by the Equality Act. The nine protected characteristics cover almost all spectrums of human existence in the UK. You may not feel that you possess a protected characteristic, but if you are a female that doesn’t get a job interview in a male-dominated workplace or a male that isn’t given a job interview in a female-dominated workplace then you may have been discriminated against on the basis of your sex. Over a third of British adults report having experienced some discrimination in the workplace. If you are deemed too old to join your local lawn bowling club, or too old to try your hand at a street dance class then you may have been discriminated against on the basis of your age. One in three people in the UK experience age-based prejudice or discrimination. Discrimination is widespread, and everyone can be affected by it though, sadly, some groups are more likely to experience discrimination than others.
There are some exceptions to the Equality Act 2010. For example, if you wish to go on a Club 18-30 holiday or an over 65s holiday then you must meet these age criteria and it is not considered to be age discrimination to cancel your trip if you do not meet these specific criteria which were outlined when the holiday was booked. Other examples of exceptions to this discrimination are:
- If you are asked for age verification when buying age-restricted products, such as cigarettes, alcohol and fireworks.
- If you are asked to share specific information about your protected characteristics for immigration purposes.
- If you wish to purchase a residential park home or live in an elderly care home for which there is a minimum residency age requirement.
- If you wish to work in a profession where age restrictions are put in place for health and safety reasons (for example, in the fire service, police force or the military).
- When competing in sports competitions or tournaments that are categorised by age, you may be asked for proof of age. When competing in disabled sports competitions or tournaments that are categorised by severity of the disability, you may be asked for proof of your disability.
What are the Nine Protected Characteristics?
There are nine protected characteristics which are protected specifically under the 2010 Equality Act to ensure that everyone in the UK is treated equally. The nine protected characteristics are:
- Gender reassignment
- Marriage and civil partnership
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief
- Sexual orientation
The Equality Act 2010 also protects you if you or someone in your life has a protected characteristic and you are treated unfairly as a result of this. This is called discrimination by association and doesn’t just apply to family members but also to friends and associates. So if, for example, you are treated unfairly or victimised with negative language in the workplace because your son is gay, you would be protected in just the same way as if you had that protected characteristic yourself.
Rights Under the Equality Act
The Equality Act 2010 puts legal responsibility for protecting individuals from discrimination, harassment and victimisation on employers, service providers, those who carry out public functions, private clubs, educational bodies, landlords and transport providers, among others. It is their responsibility to ensure that those with protected characteristics, and anyone associated with them, are treated fairly and can access employment and services in a fair and equal way.
As well as protecting you from direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation they must also make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure that individuals with protected characteristics are not at a substantial disadvantage when accessing their services or working within their business. This might include ensuring that a new mother who has recently returned from maternity leave has a private space where she can pump breast milk for her infant or ensuring that access ramps make the whole building accessible for wheelchair-using employees. They may also need to offer auxiliary aids, such as access to a hearing loop or an interpreter for customers or service users with hearing disabilities.
Your rights under the equality act state that you should not be left at a ‘substantial disadvantage’ but do not state that you cannot be left at a disadvantage. So if a wheelchair user can access the building using access ramps, but these ramps take considerably longer to enter the building than taking the stairs then this would be considered a legal disadvantage. If a wheelchair user was unable to access the building because no ramps were provided, however, this would be considered a substantial disadvantage, this would be illegal and would be protected under the Equality Act 2010.
How Can You be Discriminated Against?
There are numerous ways in which you can be discriminated against, but for the purpose of the Act, these have been divided into four main types of discrimination. These are direct discrimination, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation. The definition of each of these types of discrimination are:
- Direct Discrimination. This is when a person is treated differently (usually worse) to another as a direct result of them possessing a protected characteristic. So if you are up for a promotion at work, but your employer decides not to interview you for the role because of your age or sex (feeling that the position wouldn’t suit a female because the rest of the team are male, for example, or that an older applicant couldn’t ‘keep up’ with the pace) then this would be a clear example of direct discrimination.
- Indirect Discrimination. At first glance, indirect discrimination may be more subtle than direct discrimination, but it still negatively impacts the ability of individuals with protected characteristics to seek employment, socialise, or otherwise function in society. Some examples of indirect discrimination include a company placing a job advertisement seeking ‘recent graduates’: this implies that only young applicants should apply. Or if a shop has a sign stating that people cannot enter wearing a school uniform, this effectively means school children are being discriminated against on the basis of their age. Or if the local council holds a meeting but will only hold this in the evenings, many female residents may be indirectly excluded because of their ability to secure childcare for the event.
- Harassment. This is a much more extreme form of discrimination and means that an individual with a protected characteristic is treated in a way that leaves them feeling violated, degraded or offended. Their dignity is not maintained. An example of this would be someone in a wheelchair getting onto a bus and being insulted by the driver, who comments that lowering the ramp is inconvenient, leaving the wheelchair user feeling offended and upset.
- Victimisation. Finally, if you take action under the Equality Act because you have been harassed or discriminated against then you cannot be treated unfairly as a result. To do so would be considered an example of victimisation. The victimisation policy also protects anyone who is supporting someone who is taking action under the Equality Act. So, if you see someone being discriminated against in the workplace on the grounds of a protected characteristic and act as a witness on their behalf, you cannot be dismissed or treated negatively in any way as a consequence of providing this support.
There are some protected characteristics that are underrepresented in society, or individuals with those characteristics have particular needs that mean they need extra help and encouragement to participate fully in wider society. Service providers may now take proportionate steps to help people overcome their disadvantages or to meet their needs. But it’s important to note that what is sometimes deemed ‘positive discrimination’ is always optional and that there are no restrictions on treating disabled people in a more favourable way that those without disabilities.