Creating a fairer Britain
A duty on the public sector to promote gender equality was introduced across Britain in 2007 following similar duties in relation to race and disability in 2002 and 2006. This means that all public bodies, including Local Authorities, should be assessing the needs of women and men and taking action to meet these needs. Local authorities should carry out research on prevalence and use other local information to help them do this.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published guidance on the Gender Equality Duty.
Under the Sex Discrimination Act it is permissible to limit the provision of facilities or services to one sex in a number of circumstances, including services provided by women’s refuges if they are providing special care comparable to that provided at a hospital, as would rape crisis centres if they were providing medical or psychiatric care. It is also lawful to provide single sex services where female users are likely to suffer serious embarrassment at the presence of men. This could include rape crisis centres and women’s refuges if they involve group provision of services involving intimate personal matters.
The law in this area does not change because of the gender duty: if something was lawful before the duty was introduced, it remains lawful. However, this is a complex area of law with a number of exemptions, and further details are set out in Chapter 6 of the Code of Practice on the gender equality duty
The gender duty cannot be used as grounds to cut or refuse funding to single sex services. It would equally be inappropriate to interpret the gender duty as meaning that services should be provided on the same scale for both men and women. For instance, because the majority of victims of domestic violence and rape are women, it would not be appropriate for a local council to fund or provide refuge services on an equal numbers basis for men and for women.
For example, when Ealing Council’s new funding policies threatened the survival of a long-standing domestic violence support group, the Southall Black Sisters (SBS) the decision was overturned following a legal challenge at the High Court. The new criteria required those applying for funding to provide domestic violence services to all people in Ealing 'irrespective of gender, sexual orientation, race, faith, age [and] disability' for the same amount of money that had previously been given to SBS. This would effectively result in less funding for the highly specialised services targeted at ethnic minority women offered by SBS. This was challenged in the courts by two service users of SBS. The EHRC intervened and argued that the council had failed to carry out their legal obligations under the Race Equality Duties to assess the impact of changes in funding criteria and that the Council did not understand the correct interpretation of the Race Relations Act 1976, which allowed for the targeting of domestic violence services to particular 'hard to reach' communities as a form of lawful positive action to achieve equality and encourage integration. Ealing Council conceded the claims during the hearing, with the effect that they will need to re-consider the funding criteria and the process for inviting bids for domestic violence services.
Local Authorities should ensure that they are compliant with both the Concordat and the Compact. Sustainable funding is essential for specialised services to continue and develop - this means funding cycles of at least three years. Services often find it difficult to secure core costs yet these are critical for effective provision.
In many cases, the support provided by specialised voluntary sector services saves the statutory sector money, particularly health, social services and the police. More information can be found in the Map of Gaps and Map of Gaps 2 reports.
Developing new provision in an area should only be undertaken in partnership with specialised organisations such as those in neighbouring areas or national umbrella bodies such as Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid. Issues such as start-up costs, recruiting staff with sufficient experience and knowledge and developing referral pathways require consultation and careful consideration.