- General equality duty
- Protected characteristics
- Positive action
- The Equality and Human Rights Commission
- The Equality Challenge Unit
The Equality Act (2010) harmonised and extended earlier equality legislation, broadening its scope and introducing a ‘general equality duty’ for public authorities in respect of nine protected characteristics. The legislation covers employment; education; the provision of goods, facilities and services; the management of premises and the exercise of public functions. This affects the University in a number of ways, including
- Employment of staff
- Admission of students
- Teaching and assessment, including field trips, placements and study abroad
- Arrangements for conferring degrees
- University facilities and services
- Provision for visitors, including conferences, school visits, contractors etc
- Procurement of goods and services
The general equality duty is supported by specific duties which set out practical measures by which public bodies can demonstrate their compliance with the general duty. Together these form the ‘public sector equality duty’. Universities and colleges – including the constituent colleges of Oxford University – are recognised as public bodies under the legislation.
General equality duty
In the exercise of all their policies, practices, procedures and other functions, public bodies must have ‘due regard’ to the need to:
- Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Equality Act;
- Advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not;
- Foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not.
Advancing equality of opportunity is described as:
- Removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by people due to their protected characteristics;
- Taking steps to meet the needs of people from protected groups where these are different from the needs of other people;
- Encouraging people from protected groups to participate in public life or in other activities where their participation is disproportionately low.
Public bodies must take steps to take account of disabled people’s impairments; must not discriminate against disabled people by treating them less favourably than other people, and must make reasonable adjustments, both anticipatory and individual. They must also promote equality of opportunity between disabled people and others. It is permissible to treat disabled people ‘more favourably’ than others, where to do so would not breach a competence standard (an academic, medical or other standard which is applied to determine someone’s level of competence in a required skill or ability). The University has published guidance on competence standards in assessment in the Education Committee’s Policy and Guidance on Examinations and Assessments (see Annexe A).
The public sector equality duty covers the following eight protected characteristics:
- Gender reassignment
- Pregnancy and maternity
- Religion or belief (including lack of belief)
- Sexual orientation
Public authorities also need to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination in employment against someone because of their:
- Marriage or civil partnership status.
This means that the first arm of the duty applies to this characteristic but that the other arms (advancing equality and fostering good relations) do not apply.
It is permissible to provide targeted provision around education, training and welfare to a particular group on the basis of a protected characteristic, e.g. single sex provision, training for women in science or mentoring support for black and minority ethnic students.
Such measures must be aimed at alleviating disadvantage experienced by people who share a protected characteristic, reducing underrepresentation and/or meeting a particular need. Targeted measures may be justifiable as a means of promoting equality of opportunity.
Positive action is not the same as positive discrimination, which remains illegal.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is responsible for enforcing the equality duty and assessing public bodies’ compliance with it. It can issue compliance notices and can apply to the courts for an order requiring compliance. The equality duty can also be enforced by judicial review – either by the EHRC, or by an individual or a group of interested people (e.g. a trade union).
The EHRC is conducting a review of public bodies’ websites from February 2012 to assess their level of compliance with the equality duty.
The EHRC has published a range of non-statutory guidance on the public sector equality duty, policy and decision-making, gathering equality information, setting equality objectives and engagement with protected groups.
The Government has decided not to proceed with statutory codes of practice on the public sector equality duty and higher and further education and schools. The EHRC will therefore publish its draft codes of practice as non-statutory guidance, having first submitted them for further review in 2012.
The Equality Challenge Unit
The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) for further and higher education publishes a wide range of statistical information, policy research and best practice guidance on all the protected characteristics. Their website is easily searchable by protected characteristic or institution function and includes details of training events and practitioner networks. For more information, see: www.ecu.ac.uk.