The Gender Equality Duty came into force on 6th April 2007 and applies to all public authorities in England, Scotland and Wales.
There is a legal requirement on all public authorities, when carrying out all their functions, to have due regard to the need (1) To eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sex, and (2) To promote equality of opportunity between women and men.
‘Functions’ includes policy-making, service delivery, employment, statutory discretion, and decision-making.
‘Due regard’ means that authorities should give due weight to the need to promote gender equality in proportion to its relevance. The duty requires organisations to take action on the most important gender equality issues within their functions.
The promotion of equal opportunities between women and men requires public authorities to recognise that the two groups are not starting from an equal footing and identical treatment will not always be appropriate.
Under the duty authorities also have an obligation to eliminate discrimination and harassment towards current and potential transexual staff, and the duty extended to trans service users from December 2007.
Who does it apply to?
The general duty applies to all GB public bodies (or public authorities). This includes government departments and executive agencies, colleges and universities, schools, NHS Trusts and Boards, local authorities, police and fire authorities, inspection and audit bodies and many publicly-funded museums. The duty also covers private and voluntary organisations carrying out public functions.
The gender equality duty also applies to functions carried out by external contractors and by the public authoritis. Legal liability for meeting the duty remains with the public body, which is expected to take action to ensure contractors meet the requirements of the duty.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced guidance and briefings on the Gender Equality Duty, to assist public authorities with their compliance with the Duty. This information may also be helpful to groups wishing to use the Duty to lobby public bodies for change. It is available from the EHRC website.
The Gender Duty and violence against women
The End Violence Against Women (EVAW) Coalition produced additional guidance on the Gender Duty's implications in terms of violence against women. This information is relevant to all public bodies, not just those that provide services for survivors of violence. The EVAW factsheet is accompanied by a toolkit, entitled "tools for change". Further information on the public sector duties is available from the EVAW website.
Members of the Women's Sector have praised the Crown Prosecution Service's Single Equality Scheme 2006-2010 as a useful example of an effective response to the Duty. It provides an integrated response to the Gender, Race and Disability Duties. It addresses the full spectrum of gender equality issues, including all forms of violence against women. It also recognises the importance of disaggregating data according to gender. We hope that this document will be used as a model of good practice throughout Government and that you may able to use it either to guide your own assessments or to lobby public bodies to respond to the Duty more effectively.
How can the Gender Equality Duty be used to make public bodies change their practices?
Lobby groups can and should use the Duty as a tool to force public bodies to consider the way their policies affect women. When this is done effectively, public bodies may be forced to change their policies. For example, a significant victory was won for the women's sector in December 2007 when Rape Crisis UK used the Gender Equality Duty to persuade a local authority to close a local lap-dancing club.
How will the Gender Equality Duty affect single-sex services?
Single sex services are lawful where there is a clear need to preserve decency or privacy, such as a women's refuge. However, this is a complex area of law with a number of exemptions. Single sex service provision is not changed by the gender duty, and the duty does not mean that single sex services should be cut, or that services should necessarily be provided on the same scale for both men and women. For example, because women make up the majority of victims of domestic violence and rape it may not be appropriate for a local council to fund or provide refuge services on an equal basis for men and for women.
The specific duties for England, Scotland and Wales are different. Full details of the legal requirements of the duty are set out in the statutory Code of Practice for England and Wales and the separate Code for Scotland.
If you believe that an organisation is failing to comply, the Equality and Human Rights Commission can take legal steps. The first step is to issue a compliance notice. This requests the organisation to meet the terms of the duty and to provide a written assessment within 28 days of what it is doing to fulfil the duty requirements. If the organisation fails to fulfil the requirements, the compliance notice is enforceable in the courts.