UK: The Equality Act And What It Means For Social Housing Providers

Last Updated: 5 December 2010
Article by Debra Kent

Introduction

The main provisions of the Equality Act 2010 (the "Act") have now become law in the UK. It applies to social housing providers as both employers and service providers of affordable housing.

The Act has consolidated all existing equality laws (including disability discrimination legislation) and affords protection from discrimination on all of the following "protected characteristics":

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender reassignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation ("LGBT")

This article focuses on the key changes to the law and how it can affect protected groups in the context of social housing.

Impact on social housing providers

1.Consent to disposals of property

Consents to disposal of property are a common requirement where shared ownership schemes are involved. The Act imposes an obligation on social housing providers not to discriminate against a tenant who wishes to pass their interest to another tenant.

Discrimination in this context means refusing the consent on the basis of any of the protected characteristics mentioned (except on the basis of age or marriage/civil partnership status).

Whilst it will never be the policy of any social housing provider to deliberately discriminate on the basis of any of the protected characteristics, providers must be wary of this requirement so they don't breach it inadvertently.

2. Changes to how social housing providers deliver and plan their services

Social housing providers will now have to actively combat discrimination against persons protected by the Act. This includes helping to prevent discrimination against those who consider themselves as LGBT as well as others who have any of the other protected characteristics.

This duty could mean increased involvement with protected communities when making decisions; both day to day but also in the initial planning for the services to be provided.

Protected groups should be represented in case there are any issues that affect their interests, in an attempt to try and reduce inequalities. Social housing providers will have to ensure that all their staff begin to develop an understanding of the requirements of these groups and the practical steps that can be taken to achieve a fair outcome.

Some social housing providers are already doing this and have, for example, developed a reputation as being LGBT friendly, by having policies to determine the sexual orientation of prospective tenants to best place them in a community where there is little or no discrimination.

It is no longer enough to wait for prospective tenants to raise potential discrimination problems, as the providers will have to design and deliver services with these communities in mind.

3. Reasonable adjustments to common areas

The Act also imposes a duty on landlords to make "reasonable" adjustments to accommodate disabled tenants who, as a result of their disability, are unable to use common areas. A disabled tenant is defined by the Act as being disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial or long term effect on their ability to carry out day to day activities. The requirements dictating whether such an adjustment is necessary are detailed below:

  • There must be a physical feature of the property that puts the disabled tenant at a substantial disadvantage. The physical features include the structural aspects of the building, the exterior and the common facilities either inside or out (but they must be used as a part of the building).
  • The disabled tenant must make a request for the common areas to be adjusted to improve them to make them more accessible and/or usable.
  • The landlord or the housing provider must then consult other people that may be affected by the proposed change to the common areas. This must be done within a reasonable time.
  • The practicalities of carrying out the work must then be considered. These include who is to carry out the work, and who is to pay for the work and reinstatement of the premises once the tenant moves out. The landlord may require the tenant to meet these costs.

Housing providers must ensure that they are familiar with the needs of disabled tenants and what constitutes a reasonable adjustment.

4. Reporting obligations

The Act contains proposals that from 2011, social housing providers may also be required to produce regular reports detailing the pay gap between males and females, between the various different ethnic backgrounds of their employees and between their disabled and able-bodied staff.

If this part of the Act is implemented, this could place an increased burden on social housing providers at a time when resources are already stretched.

Failure to comply could result in penalties being imposed.

This is part of the general legislative trend towards encouraging transparency in employers' pay structures. Therefore, even if the introduction of this part of the Act is delayed, or changed by the time it is introduced, social housing providers should now be considering how they can try and start addressing issues of equality in pay within their workforce.

What are the consequences if you are in breach?

Any discrimination against a person protected by the Act could enable them to bring a claim against the social housing provider. This means that the provider could be liable for damages to compensate the injured party for what has happened, including paying a sum for injury to the victim's feelings. In extreme cases, it may also mean that the provider's decision could be subject to judicial review, which could lead to a reversal of their decision.

It is important that social housing providers are clear about their responsibilities under the Act to reduce the chances of facing such claims and the resulting bad publicity.

Conclusion

Housing providers must be clear about who the Act protects and which of these groups they are likely to be dealing with. A good knowledge of how the Act operates is essential to avoid breaching it.

Housing providers must also make sure that their staff are aware of the issues, particularly when planning services and making adjustments to common areas. Specific training for staff should be implemented to address these points.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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