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Discrimination in services and public functions - what's meant by public functions?

The law which says you mustn't be discriminated against is called the Equality Act 2010.

Public authorities, like a local authority or the police, mustn’t discriminate against you when they carry out their work. Some of the things public authorities do are services to the public - for example, the provision of libraries or leisure facilities. Other things, like law enforcement or the collection of taxes are called public functions under the Equality Act.

Read this page to find out more about what’s meant by public functions.

What’s meant by public functions?

Here are examples of public functions:

  • law enforcement and policing - for example, when the police investigate crime
  • planning control - for example, decisions about your planning application
  • licensing - for example, when you apply for a licence to run a bar or nightclub
  • receiving someone into prison or immigration detention
  • child protection and care services for children and young people - but social care and health services count as services under the Equality Act
  • administration and decisions about welfare benefits
  • enforcement of parking controls and trading standards
  • environmental health
  • investigation of complaints - for example, by a local authority or an ombudsman.

Who carries out public functions?

Public functions are carried out by public sector organisations or public authorities like a local authority, the police or a government department.

But sometimes private organisations also carry out public functions on behalf of a public authority - for example, when a private company runs a prison or a charity runs child protection services.

Both public authorities and private organisations mustn’t discriminate against you when they carry out public functions.

Example

You’re breastfeeding your newborn baby at a planning inquiry hearing. As one of the councillors feels uncomfortable with your breastfeeding you’re asked to sit behind a screen at the back of the room. This means you can’t ask questions or talk to the other members of the audience. This is likely to be unlawful pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

Example

You have a disability which affects your balance. It also makes your speech slurred. Because of this people often think you’re drunk when in fact you’re not. Last week when you came for an interview at your local Jobcentre, the adviser refused to see you because he thought you were drunk. You tried to explain about your disability but he didn’t want to hear anything and told you to come back another day when you’re not drunk.

This is likely to be discrimination because of something connected to your disability.

Must all public authorities follow the Equality Act?

Some public authorities don’t have to follow the Equality Act when they carry out public functions. This means you can’t take action under the Act if they’ve discriminated against you.

These organisations include:

  • the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service
  • Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales
  • public authorities like the courts and the Parole Board but only when they carry out judicial functions - this is when they hear cases before them.

Next steps

Other useful information

Equality Advisory Support Service (EASS)

If you have experienced discrimination, you can get help from the EASS discrimination helpline.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

You can find useful information about discrimination on the EHRC website at

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