The Equality Act became law in October 2010. It replaces previous legislation [such as the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995) and ensures consistency in what you need to do to make your practice a fair environment and to comply with the law.

The Equality Act covers the same groups that were protected by existing equality legislation – age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership and pregnancy and maternity, which are now called ‘protected characteristics’ – but extends some protections to groups not previously covered, and also strengthens particular aspects of equality law.

The Equality Act is a mixture of rights and responsibilities that have:

Stayed the same – for example, direct discrimination still occurs when ‘someone is treated less favourably than another person because of a protected characteristic’.

Changed – for example, employees will now be able to complain of harassment even if it is not directed at them, if they can demonstrate that it creates an offensive environment for them.

Been extended – for example, associative discrimination (direct discrimination against someone because they associate with another person who possesses a protected characteristic) will cover age, disability, gender reassignment and sex as well as race, religion and belief and sexual orientation.

Protected Characteristics



. Gender Reassignment

   Marriage and Civil Partnership

   Pregnancy and Maternity


   Religion or Belief


   Sexual Orientation.

Been introduced for the first time – for example, the concept of discrimination arising from disability, which occurs if a disabled person is treated unfavourably because of something arising in consequence of their disability.

As a result, you may need to review and change some of your policies and practices.


The Act protects people of all ages. However, different treatment because of age is not unlawful direct or indirect discrimination if you can justify it – for instance, if you can demonstrate that it is a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim.

Age is the only protected characteristic that allows employers to justify direct discrimination. Until October 2011, the Act continues to allow employers to have a default retirement age of 65.


The Act has made it easier for a person to show that he or she is disabled and protected from disability discrimination. Under the Act, a person is disabled if he or she has have a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, which would include things like using a telephone, reading a book or using public transport.

As before, the Act puts a duty on the employer to make reasonable adjustments for the staff to help them overcome disadvantage resulting from an impairment (by providing assistive technologies to help visually impaired staff use computers effectively, for example).

The Act includes a new protection from discrimination arising from disability. This states that it is discrimination to treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected with their disability – for instance, a tendency to make spelling mistakes arising from dyslexia.

This type of discrimination is unlawful where the employer or other person acting for the employer knows – or could reasonably be expected to know – that the person has a disability. This type of discrimination is only justifiable if an employer can show that it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Additionally, indirect discrimination now covers disabled people. This means that a job applicant or employee could claim that a particular rule or requirement you have in place disadvantages people with the same disability. Unless you could justify this, it would be unlawful.

The Act also includes a new provision which makes it unlawful, except in certain circumstances, for employers to ask about a candidates health before offering them work.

Gender reassignment

The Act provides protection for transsexual people. A transsexual person is someone who proposes to, starts or has completed a process to change his or her gender. The Act no longer requires a person to be under medical supervision to be protected – so a woman who decides to live as a man but does not undergo any medical procedures would be covered. It is discrimination to treat transsexual people less favourably for being absent from work because they propose to undergo, are undergoing, or have undergone, gender reassignment than they would be treated if they were absent because they were ill or injured.

Marriage and civil partnership

The Act protects employees who are married or in a civil partnership against discrimination. Single people are not protected.

Pregnancy and maternity

A woman is protected against discrimination on the grounds of pregnancy and maternity during the period of her pregnancy and any statutory maternity leave to which she is entitled. During this period, pregnancy and maternity discrimination cannot be treated as sex discrimination. Practices must take this into account whether an employees period of absence is the result of pregnancy-related illness when making a decision about her employment.


For the purposes of the Act ‘race’ includes colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins.

Religion or belief

In the Equality Act, religion includes any religion. It also includes a lack of religion, in other words employees or job seekers are protected if they do not follow a certain religion or have no religion at all. Additionally, a religion must have a clear structure and belief system. Belief means any religious or philosophical belief or a lack of such belief.

To be protected, a belief must satisfy various criteria, including that it is a weighty and
substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. Denominations or sects within a religion can be considered a protected religion or religious belief. Discrimination because of religion or belief can occur even where both the discriminator and recipient are of the same religion or belief.

Sexual orientation

The Act protects bisexual, gay, heterosexual and lesbian people. 

Members of the BVNA can contact the IRS Helpline for free advice and support. Call 01822 870270 or e-mail


Nicky Ackerley BA(Hons)

Nicky Ackerley HR Support is owned by Nicky Ackerley who has a BA (Hons) Business Studies Degree, is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and who has been a practising HR manager for over 20 years. HR Support Consultancy has provided the BVNA's Industrial Relations Service since it began in 2002.

• VOL 26 • January 2011 • Veterinary Nursing Journal