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Public functions - when discrimination is not unlawful

This advice applies to Wales

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. Discrimination which is because of one or more of these characteristics is generally unlawful under the Act.

What decisions are 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 - for example, when you apply for leave to enter or to extend your leave if you're already living in the UK.

Example

You came to the UK on a student visa. You have a mental health condition which means you sometimes behave aggressively. After you seriously assault one of your carers the application to exend your leave is refused. This is because of your assault.

This looks like discrimination because of something connected to a disability. However, you couldn't complain about discrimination here as it falls within the immigration exception under the Equality Act.

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 rigourously, 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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