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Inquiries, investigations and wider powers


One of the Commission's key roles as a modern regulator is to use our enforcement powers. These powers are vested in the Commission by the Equality Act 2006. For more information please download our litigation and enforcement policy.

The Commission has specific duties relating to enforcement:

  • to ensure that equality laws are enforced, and
  • to work towards  the elimination of discrimination and harassment.

Our powers allow us to require that employers, service providers, educational institutions, public bodies and housing providers:

  • cease any discriminatory practices, and
  • make changes that are necessary to prevent future discrimination or non-compliance.

As these pre-enforcement case studies show, the Commission is extremely effective at resolving matters without the need for formal proceedings. Where attempts to encourage compliance have failed, however, we may take formal enforcement action.

This may include:

  • inquiries
  • investigations
  • unlawful act notices
  • agreements
  • assessments
  • compliance notices

An inquiry is a way for us to find out more about equality, diversity or human rights within a particular sector or about a particular issue.

The Commission can conduct an inquiry into any matter which relates to sections 8 or 9 of the Equality Act (equality and diversity or human rights). We do not need to suspect that there has been a breach of equality or human rights legislation to launch an inquiry. 

When launching an inquiry, the Commission:

  • must publish the terms of reference (TORs)
  • can require organisations and individuals to provide information in relation to the TORs.
  • has the power to further question the information submitted
  • must publish a report of its findings.

If at any time during an inquiry we suspect that an unlawful act has been committed, we will consider launching an investigation.

Based on our findings we can make recommendations for change and improvement in policy, practice and legislation to any organisation, and they must have regard to our recommendations.

If a court or tribunal is hearing a case about an issue that has been the subject of an inquiry by the Commission,  it may consider the findings of the inquiry report, but it does not have to treat them as conclusive.

Inquiry into deaths in detention of adults with mental health conditions

Our inquiry looked at non-natural deaths of adults with mental health conditions in detention in England and Wales, with parallel work carried out in Scotland. We focused on prisons, police custody and psychiatric hospitals, as every year hundreds of deaths occur that are later deemed to have been preventable. Find out more about the inquiry.

Inquiry into disability-related harassment

Our inquiry looked at the progress public bodies are making in relation to preventing and dealing with disability-related harassment. Our final report revealed that hundreds of thousands of disabled people regularly experience violence and bullying, much of which is going unrecognised by public authorities. Find out more about the inquiry.

Section 16 of the Equality Act 2006 gives further detail.

The Commission’s inquiries and investigations.

The Commission can carry out an investigation to discover whether an organisation may have carried out or is carrying out an act which is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. We can only commence an investigation where we suspect that an organisation has committed an unlawful act.

The steps of an investigation can include:

  • providing written details of why an action may be unlawful
  • providing an opportunity for the organisation to comment on the terms of reference of the investigation and taking these into account
  • publicising the final terms of reference
  • requiring the organisation to provide information, documents or oral evidence.
  • Publish a final report stating whether the organisation has committed an unlawful act.

Those being investigated will be given a copy of the draft report before it is published and a minimum period of 28 days to provide written comments on the draft report to the Commission before it is published.

The Commission will make recommendations based on the findings. Failure to act on recommendations can lead to the Commission issuing an unlawful act notice.

Investigation into the Metropolitan Police Service

The Commission carried out an investigation into unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation of employees by the Metropolitan Police Service.

The focus of the investigation was the Met’s Fairness at Work report and misconduct procedures. It was carried out under section 20 of the Equality Act 2006, which gives the Commission powers to investigate compliance with equality legislation when it suspects that an unlawful act may have been committed.

Section 20 Equality Act 2006 gives further detail.

More information on the Commission’s investigations.

Unlawful Act Notices

If an investigation finds that an organisation has committed an unlawful act, the Commission can issue an unlawful act notice. This details the breach and can recommend any necessary action to avoid it being repeated or continued. We may also require an action plan to be prepared.

Section 21 Equality Act 2006 gives further detail.

The Commission can enter into a formal agreement with a person or organisation that it believes has committed an unlawful act. By entering into an agreement, the person or organisation agrees not to commit an unlawful act. As such, it is often an effective alternative to other formal enforcement action.

Agreements can be entered into without a formal investigation and will involve putting an action plan in place. It’s important to note that by agreeing to an action plan, however, the individual or organisation is not admitting that there has been an unlawful act.

Once the agreement and action plan are in place, we will keep in regular contact with the person or organisation, who must report regularly on progress. If they don’t comply with the agreement, or we think that compliance is unlikely, we can take further action through the courts.

Additionally, the Commission may suspend an investigation if the organisation being investigated agrees to enter into a section 23 agreement with an action plan. This means we will not recommence the investigation if the organisation complies with the terms of the agreement and action plan.

Section 23 Equality Act 2006 gives further detail.

More information on the Commission’s agreements.

This section only applies to those public bodies which are subject to the equality duty. These bodies are listed in Schedule 19 of the Equality Act 2010 in addition to any organisation that carries out a public function. The duty only applies to the organisation’s public functions, not any private functions it carries out.

The ‘equality duty’ requires public bodies to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations in the course of developing policies and delivering services. It came into force on 5 April 2011, bringing together three previous duties on race, disability and gender, and extending it to also cover age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, pregnancy and maternity, and gender reassignment.

There are also specific duties to help bodies to meet the three aims of the public sector equality duty. These specific duties are different in each of the three nations.

To check whether a public body is complying with either the general or the specific duties, we can undertake an assessment. Assessments can be used to obtain evidence for further enforcement action, as well as to identify areas of best practice. We do not have to suspect there has been any breach of the public duty to carry out an assessment, and we have robust powers to request evidence and information during the assessment.

Fair financial decision-making: HM Treasury

In May 2012, following an assessment we published a landmark report on the extent to which HM Treasury met its legal obligations to consider the impact of the Government's 2010 Spending Review on people with different protected characteristics. Since publication of the report, the Commission has been working with HM Treasury and others on the recommendations. Find out more about the assessment into HM Treasury.

Compliance notices

This section only applies to those public bodies which are subject to the equality duty. These bodies are listed in Schedule 19 of the Equality Act 2010 in addition to any organisation that carries out a public function. The duty only applies to the organisation’s public functions, not any private functions it carries out.

If the Commission thinks that a public authority has not complied with its equality duty, we have the power to serve a compliance notice. This may require it to comply with the duty, or it may detail the steps that need to be taken to ensure compliance.  A notice may also require the organisation to provide further information to the Commission to check whether it is complying.

If the organisation does not comply with the notice, we can apply for a court order requiring it to comply. Not complying with the court order is a criminal offence.

Section 32 Equality Act 2006 gives further detail.

Last updated: 27 Jan 2020