Public functions - when discrimination is not unlawful

This advice applies to Wales. See advice for See advice for England, See advice for Northern Ireland, See advice for Scotland

The law which says you mustn't be discriminated against is called the Equality Act 2010. Generally speaking public authorities - for example, the police or a government department - aren’t allowed to discriminate against you. This is unlawful under the Act. But there are some exceptions in the Act where discrimination isn't unlawful.

Read this page to find out more about when a public authority is allowed to discriminate against you when they carry out public functions.

What are public functions?

Public functions include things like law enforcement, tax collection or decisions about benefits.

Immigration exceptions

Some public authorities, like immigration officers are allowed to discriminate against you when they make certain immigration decisions - for example, decisions about your right to come and live in the UK.

When can some public authorities discriminate against you?

In some situations it’s not unlawful for a public authority to discriminate against you because of your:

  • disability

  • race - but only in relation to nationality and ethnic or national origins

  • religion and belief

These things are called protected characteristics. It's usually unlawful for someone to discriminate against you because you have 1 or more of these characteristics.

Decisions covered by this exception

Public authorities are allowed to discriminate against you when they make decisions about your right to enter and stay in the UK.


Violet wants to apply for a Youth Mobility visa to come and work in the UK. She finds out you can only apply if you’re from certain countries. These countries all have white or Asian majority populations, like Australia and Japan. Violet can’t apply because she’s from Zimbabwe. She thinks this is racist, but she can’t challenge it because it’s not unlawful discrimination.

Immigration functions

Public authorities are also allowed to discriminate against you when they carry out certain immigration functions - for example, when they carry out immigration or passport controls. But this exception only applies to race and religion and belief. Public authorities aren't allowed to discriminate against you because of your disability in this situation.  

For example, if immigration officers at UK ports have been told to check people from certain countries more rigorously, this isn't unlawful race discrimination.

Harassment or victimisation

It's never lawful for a public authority like an immigration officer to harass or victimise you because of your disability, race or religion and belief.  

If there’s a law which allows someone to discriminate

If there’s a law which says that some people can be treated differently in a particular situation - for example, because of their sex or religion and belief - it’s not unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act if a public authority treats you differently in that situation.

National security

Public authorities are allowed to discriminate against you if this necessary for reasons of national security. But the discrimination must be no be more than what is strictly necessary to safeguard national security.

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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