Government sparks anger after weakening Equality Act duties


A shock government move to weaken the rules on how public bodies must promote equality will make it harder for disabled people to challenge their policies and decisions, say campaigners.

In a new “policy review paper”, the government says it wants to lighten the bureaucratic “burden” on public bodies by removing some of the “specific duties” they have to meet to comply with the Equality Act’s equality duty.

The equality duty says public bodies must have “due regard” to eliminating discrimination, advancing equality of opportunity, and promoting good relations when making decisions.

But the government now wants to turn its approach to the specific duties “on its head” so organisations – such as councils, health trusts and government departments – would no longer have to publish details of how they consulted disabled people and other groups in drawing up their policies and equality objectives.

They would also not have to publish the equality analysis they carried out in reaching those decisions, or set out how they plan to measure progress on reaching their equality objectives, while they could set just a single objective every four years.

The policy review reverses government moves to strengthen the specific duties that were made in January, after a previous consultation.

Caroline Gooding, an equality consultant and a former director with the Disability Rights Commission, said the review sent “a very damaging signal” to public authorities “that they do not need to look at the equality impact of their decisions”, even though “they do have to do that because that is what is required by the act itself.”

She said the new regulations would mean more people would have to go to court to challenge the decisions of public bodies.

Gooding said she believed the government decision was a “reaction” to the high-profile equality duty court case lost by education secretary Michael Gove in February over his scrapping of school building projects.

Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said the changes were “extremely unhelpful” and would “weaken the duties”.

She said: “It will make it much more difficult for groups like ours to judge whether they have had sufficient consultation and have spoken to a broad enough range or relevant enough range of people in the process of determining their policies.”

Marije Davidson, RADAR’s public affairs manager, said: “We are worried about the message that the policy review sends out, which is that equality can be achieved with a minimum of effort; that ‘processes’ are a burden rather than something that actually helps deliver better outcomes.”

Although the general equality duty will still come into force on 5 April, the specific duties will now be delayed – probably until July.

The government is seeking comments on its policy review paper – which applies to public bodies in England and “non-devolved” bodies in Scotland and Wales – until 21 April.

23 March 2011