The new public sector equality duty, which includes sexual orientation for the first time, came into force on 5 April 2011.
The Equality Act received Royal Assent on 8 April 2010 and is warmly welcomed by Stonewall. It has the potential to secure greater fairness and equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people across Britain and could see marked improvements for gay people in a range of key public services, from policing to education and from housing to health services. Stonewall played a major part in lobbying for parts of the Act relevant to sexual orientation.
The Act updates our complex existing framework of anti-discrimination laws and makes it simpler for individuals, businesses and organisations to understand and access the law in one place.
From October 2010, the new Equality Act replaced the existing legal protections covering employment - the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003 - and businesses and services, including schools - the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. Importantly however, people continue to have the same level of protection in these areas.
The Act also introduced important new measures, including an ‘equality duty’ on public bodies to proactively promote equality - from April 2011 - and permitting civil partnerships in religious buildings, where religious denominations wish to do this.
The Act introduced other changes too, such as repealing a previous exemption for insurance providers.
Key new areas of the Equality Act
A single public duty
Sections 149 - 157
The new public sector equality duty is the missing piece in the jigsaw for full legal protection for gay people across Britain, complementing existing legislation in employment and goods and services with a more proactive approach to tackling discrimination. Stonewall firmly believes that lesbian, gay and bisexual taxpayers should be able to approach the public services they help to fund with complete confidence. We warmly welcome an integrated equality duty that will help to make this a reality.
Since 5 April 2011 public bodies need to ensure they comply with the general equality duty. Under the general duty, in Section 149 of the Equality Act, all public bodies need to have due regard to:
(a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct prohibited by the Act;
(b) advance equality of opportunity between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and people who do not share it – for example, heterosexual people and gay people
(c) foster good relations between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and people who do not share it.
This means that public bodies must now actively show they accommodate the needs of their gay service-users in the design and delivery of public services like education, policing and housing. Public bodies will have to think in advance about the needs of different service users, involving and engaging local gay people, and set out what they’re doing to address those needs. Stonewall believes that the new duty could have a transformative effect on gay people’s lives in areas where they have often faced discrimination and on the cost-effectiveness of the delivery of public services.
Why do we need a single equality duty?
All too often lesbian, gay and bisexual people have received second-class treatment from public services. A new integrated duty could make a significant difference to gay people’s experience of public services, helping public bodies deliver fairer and more efficient services. For example:
• The duty could result in health services taking steps to meet the particular needs of lesbian, gay and bisexual people and encouraging them to access services. Twice as many lesbian and bisexual women over 25 have never had a cervical smear test compared to the general female population. The duty could help authorities target screening to lesbian and bisexual women, improving service take-up with long-term benefits for women’s health and the potential cost savings associated with preventive healthcare measures.
• The duty could see wider take-up of measures to promote safety and raise awareness about hate crime, for example with measures to encourage gay people to report hate crimes. YouGov polling commissioned by Stonewall (supported by the Home Office) found that while one in five gay people have been the victim of a hate crime in the last three years, three in four did not report it to the police because they did not expect it would be taken seriously.
• The duty could lead to schools reviewing anti-bullying strategies to ensure that they address the issue of homophobic bullying. YouGov polling for Stonewall also reveals that nine in ten secondary school teachers and two in five primary school teachers say pupils experience homophobic bullying in their schools, even if they are not gay.
Stonewall’s approach to the duty
Stonewall believes that the equality duty should extend to all public bodies. However we have always said that the duty should be implemented in a proportionate manner, with clear and targeted guidance to help public bodies. We support a focus on practical outcomes, not something which becomes an administrative burden.
Stonewall currently works with over 400 public sector partners supporting them to take active steps to ensure the services they provide are fair for all, focused on practical outcomes that make a difference. You can find more details about our works with employers and education authorities through the links below:
In May 2012 the Government announced a review of the duty to establish whether it is operating as intended. Stonewall submitted a response to the review, featuring case studies and evidence from public bodies that have been using the duty to promote equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people and to improve their workplaces and services. Click here to read Stonewall’s response.
The Specific Duties
The Government also introduced the Specific Duties of the Equality Act 2010. These duties give public bodies detail about what they have to do to meet their responsibilities under the Act.
By 6 April 2012 all public bodies in England had to publish equality objectives which set out how they will tackle inequalities amongst staff and students. They must be specific and measurable. All public bodies also have to publish data annually on how they are meeting their responsibilities under the Act. Schools had to first do this by 6 April 2012, however all other public bodies had to do this by 31 January 2012.
Stonewall’s research has clearly demonstrated the need for schools and local authorities to tackle homophobic bullying and homophobia in education. It is vital that schools set out both how they will tackle and prevent homophobic bullying. Stonewall has published plain-English guidance about the Equality Act to help public bodies set and measure their equality objectives.
Civil partnerships in religious premises
Stonewall warmly welcomes measures in the Equality Act which enable religious organisations who wish to perform civil partnership to do so. Previously the law banned civil partnership ceremonies on religious premises.
Stonewall led calls for a permissive approach to enable the various religious denominations who now wish to perform and bless civil partnerships in their buildings – including the Quakers, Liberal Judaism and the Unitarian Church - to be able to do so.
The Equality Act makes clear that this will not be mandatory. We were persuaded by the argument put forward by a number of religious organisations that they see this matter as a compelling issue of religious freedom. The previous law prevented them from celebrating committed, loving relationships and it is right that it be revised. There was widespread support for this issue from all sides of the House of Lords.
Some helpful links
More information about the Public Sector Equality Duty is available on the Government Equality Office website here and the Equality & Human Rights Commission's website here.
Read more about the Equality Act’s passage through Parliament here