The outcome from the Government’s Red Tape Challenge, which was aimed at reducing ‘burdensome’ regulations, was met with disappointment from the disability community. Rather than focusing attention on truly troublesome regulation, the Government is proposing to review the effectiveness of the public sector Equality Duty.
The duty is an important measure, strengthening the protection disabled people have in our society. The duty requires all public bodies, including Government departments, local authorities and schools, to consider the impact of their decisions on disabled people and other groups and take steps to eliminate discrimination and advance equality as part of their work. Last year, the Government committed to carry out a review in 2013 of the effectiveness of the specific duties (which underpin the general duty). This announcement brings that review forward and expands its scope to cover the duty as a whole.
This review is too hasty and it is simply too soon to say what impact of these new specific duties on public bodies will have as they have just come into force earlier this year. The Government needs to let evidence lead the way, but currently it lack sufficient data about what public bodies have been doing in terms of publishing equality information and setting out equality objectives.
Research shows that the equality duty can have a positive impact; fostering better decision-making and helping to deliver better outcomes for disabled people. As a result of the duty, many local authorities have improvements in the services they deliver or changed their policies to better reflect disabled people’s needs.
The duty has also been a crucial tool for disabled people to hold public bodies and central government to account. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) report on how well the Treasury had complied with equality legislation during the Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010, which was published yesterday, serves as an important reminder of the crucial role the duty plays in ensuring accountability.
The EHRC report showed that the Treasury would have been in a better position to understand the cumulative impact of the raft of reforms proposed on particular groups, including disabled people, if it had made use more fully of the equality duty. Any weakening of the duty would pose a significant risk of undermining the progress that we’ve made towards disability equality to date.
This move reinforces a perception that important equalities legislation is burdensome red tape and adds further weight to existing concerns about the Government’s commitment to equality and protection from discrimination.
At a time the Government is creating a new disability strategy, it is sending out a mixed message about its commitment to promoting equality for disabled people. At a time of austerity and financial restraints on public bodies, what disabled people need leadership from the Government to help them complying with the duty. This review risks only creating more uncertainty for public bodies and potentially greater inequality for disabled people.