The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) was established by the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act as the independent body responsible for working towards gender equality in Great Britain and keeping the legislation under review. Now replaced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), whose remit extends across a wide range of protected equality grounds, the EOC was the main actor involved in the promotion, investigation and enforcement of sex discrimination legislation between 1975 and 2007.

Under the 1975 Act (s. 75), the EOC was given unique powers, including assisting strategic test cases (where ‘the case raises a question of principle’, there was a ‘complexity’ to the case, or there were ‘special considerations’).  This was used to win the first successful sexual harassment cases in the 1980s.

The EOC was also given another important tool: the power to conduct formal investigations. Having previously concentrated on individual test cases in relation to sexual harassment, it began to use its formal investigation powers in the 2000s to undertake enforcement work with major employers where there were grounds for belief that there was systemic discrimination (where sexual harassment was understood to be widespread).

The EOC announced formal investigations into the Royal Mail in 2003, the Ministry of Defence (armed services) in 2005, and HM Prison Service in 2006.

The investigation into the Royal Mail was launched in January 2003. Its launch was widely reported in the national media, including the background context that Royal Mail had received 140 internal complaints of sexual harassment between January 1999 and July 2000. The investigation was suspended after seven months in August 2003 because the Royal Mail developed an action plan to change workplace culture and agreed to work with the EOC around its implementation. The action plan included setting up a helpline, monthly surveys, briefings to staff, and the appointment of independent investigators to handle complaints. The EOC continued to evaluate the Royal Mail’s progress over the next three years.

The investigation into HM Prison Service in 2006 entailed preparatory work but was suspended immediately because the organisation put forward an acceptable two-year Action Plan. A similar route had been followed with the MoD, where an agreement was reached in 2005.