The Equality Act 2010 is likely to be one of the most influential pieces of legislation for years. 90% of its provisions have come into force today. Its goal is to "rationalise" and "strengthen" existing equality legislation.

The Act combines and consolidates previous legislation, designed to protect individuals against certain types of discrimination, where they have a 'protected characteristic.' The characteristics are:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender Re-assignment
  • Race
  • Religion or Belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Marriage & Civil Partnership
  • Pregnancy and Maternity

There are no new characteristics, but the requirement that an individual undergoing Gender Re-assignment must be under medical supervision in order to attract protection from discrimination is removed.

The provisions that have been given effect today include new, wider definitions of direct discrimination (which includes discrimination based on the perception of an individual, and by reason of association with a person with a protected characteristic); and extend indirect discrimination to the protected characteristic of disability.

The Act provides that a disabled person cannot be treated unfavourably because of something arising from their disability without justification. This is a wider test than the previous "disability related discrimination", and it is likely to be easier for an employee to show disadvantage.

The duty to make reasonable adjustments to prevent a provision, criterion or practice or physical feature putting a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage continues to apply.

Protection from 3rd party harassment has been extended to apply to all the protected characteristics; where previously it had applied to sex.

Positive action by employers in order to meet the legitimate aim of counteracting disadvantage caused to a particular protected group in a proportionate manner is specifically permitted.

Some provisions which have not been given effect today include dual discrimination. This provision will allow an individual to rely on a combination of the above characteristics to support a claim for discrimination. It is expected that this provision may come into force next April, although the government is still considering it.

The public sector Equality Duty, which will have a key role in ensuring that fairness is at the heart of public bodies' work is not coming into force today. Consultation is taking place about how to impose specific duties designed to help public bodies meet their obligations under the public sector Equality Duty. It is expected that these specific duties will also come into force in April 2011. In the meantime, the existing public sector sex, race and disability equality duties remain applicable.

Separately, the National Minimum Wage has been increased from today:

  • £5.80 to £5.93 an hour for workers aged 21 and over (previously the qualifying age for the National Minimum Wage was 22)
  • £4.83 to £4.92 an hour for workers aged 18 to 20
  • £3.57 to £3.64 an hour for workers aged 16 to 17
  • £2.50 - the apprentice rate, for apprentices under 19, or 19 or over, and in the first year of their apprenticeship.