Leading disability rights figures have warned that key parts of the country’s equality legislation are under threat from the government, after the prime minister announced that he was “calling time on equality impact assessments”.
In a speech to business leaders at the CBI’s annual conference this week, David Cameron said the country was “in the economic equivalent of war”, and needed the government to be “tough”, “radical” and “fast”.
He blamed judicial reviews, public consultations and equality impact assessments (EIAs) for slowing the pace of government reforms, and pledged to reduce the length of public consultations on new policies, and make it harder to bring judicial reviews.
But he also said he was “calling time” on EIAs and “all this extra tick-box stuff”, and added: “That way, policy-makers are free to use their judgement and do the right thing to meet the equalities duty rather than wasting their own time and taxpayers’ money.”
His comments alarmed leading disabled campaigners, who fear they mark the latest stage in a coalition assault on the equality agenda and could even signal its intention to scrap the crucial public sector equality duty (PSED).
The government has already slashed the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget, delayed the implementation of discrimination laws that were due to be introduced as part of the Equality Act, and ordered a review of the PSED.
The PSED forces public bodies – such as councils and government departments – to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination when forming policies. EIAs are used by these public bodies to show that they have paid due regard to the impact on disabled people and other minority groups.
Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), said Cameron’s comments on EIAs were “very, very dangerous”.
He said: “It isn’t human rights policies that are holding back the economy. It wasn’t the Equality Act that led to the bankers squandering money in some casino.
“We fought for years to get the EIA because it enables you to look at the effects of policies before they start happening to people.”
Sir Bert said he believed that the PSED, the Equality Act and the whole equality agenda were “under threat”, and added: “If Cameron is saying, ‘we will not assess our policies to see whether they are discriminatory,’ is he now saying, ‘we don’t care whether they are discriminatory’?”
Marie Pye, the lead on equality for London Councils (LC) and a Labour councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest, said there was “no doubt at all” that the attack on EIAs meant the equality duty itself was under threat.
Pye, who led the DRC’s work on the disability equality duty, which preceded the PSED, said that scrapping the equality duty would mean public bodies would no longer have to think about the impact on disabled people when considering a major new policy.
She said the PSED was even more crucial at a time when disability and housing benefits, social care, and affordable and accessible housing were all being cut.
She said: “It is even more important that you think about disabled people when you are making cuts. It is about avoiding unintended consequences.”
And she said LC had seen “loads of examples” of local authorities that had produced “really good changes” to policies as a result of carrying out an EIA.
Mike Smith, who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, said: “It seems as though the current administration doesn’t feel as if equality is an important outcome.”
He said there were occasions when EIAs were used by public bodies as “box-ticking exercises”, but he added: “There are many good examples where EIAs have been shown to make demonstrably better decisions that save public money and produce better outcomes.
“There is certainly scope for improvement but scrapping them without a good alternative is not the right decision.”
He said the PSED was “a very important and useful tool. I sincerely hope that the review will be looking at how to make it work better, not whether it should exist.”
Asked if the prime minister’s comments suggested the government would scrap the PSED, a Government Equalities Office spokeswoman said: “No, not at all. We said we would review it. It is just a review to see how it is working and not necessarily an indication that we are going to get rid of it.”
22 November 2012