The Government has confirmed that the Equality Act will start to come into effect in October.

The Act, which brings together nine separate pieces of legislation under one umbrella, was introduced by the previous Labour administration.

There was some speculation that the new coalition was not committed to the Act but the Government Equalities Office says it will go ahead. It means there will be several changes affecting businesses and employers relating to discrimination in its various forms.

For example, businesses should be aware that people who access goods, facilities and services are protected from discrimination relating to a “protected characteristic”. These characteristics are:

  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race – including ethnic or national origins, colour and nationality
  • religion or belief
  • sex and sexual orientation.

With the exception of pregnancy and maternity, people do not have to have one of these characteristics themselves to be protected from discrimination. The protection also applies if a person is unfairly treated because they are wrongly perceived to have a particular characteristic.

This might apply, for example, if a person is discriminated against because they are perceived to be gay when in fact they are not.

The protection also extends to people who are treated unfairly because they associate with someone who has a protected characteristic.

The Act also introduces several changes relating to the workplace and employment law.

For example, the Act develops the concept of indirect discrimination, which can occur when there is a rule or policy that applies to everybody but creates a disadvantage for employees with a particular protected characteristic.

As with goods and services, there can be no discrimination relating to perception or association.

There are also changes relating to harassment and victimisation, and the Act also introduces the concept of harassment by a third party. This means that employers are potentially liable for harassment of their staff by people they don’t employ.

The Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, Theresa May, said: “By making the law easier to understand, the Equality Act will help business treat staff fairly and meet the needs of a diverse customer base.

“A successful economy needs the full participation of all its citizens and we are committed to implementing the Act in the best way for business.”

Not all the changes will be implemented at the same time and the Government is still considering its position on some of the equal pay measures outlined in the Act. Ministers are expected to offer more guidance over the coming months.

Businesses and employers may want to review their policies if they have not already done so to ensure they meet the requirements of the Act.

Please contact Andy Graham if you would like more information.