The government is set to resist fierce opposition and force through proposals that will weaken the steps public bodies must take to help them promote equality.
Campaigners, opposition MPs and the equality watchdog have all warned that the decision will lead to a rise in court cases taken by disabled people and other disadvantaged groups over the decisions of local authorities and other public bodies.
But the government says it wants to avoid “burdening public authorities with unnecessary bureaucratic processes” by removing some of the “specific duties” they have to meet to comply with the Equality Act’s single equality duty.
The equality duty says that public bodies – ranging from primary schools to government departments – must have “due regard” to eliminating discrimination faced by disabled people and other groups, as well as advancing equality of opportunity, and promoting good relations.
But those in England will now have just two “specific duties”: to set a minimum of one equality objective every four years – across disability and the other five equality strands – and to publish information every year on how they are complying with the equality duty.
Inclusion London criticised the “minimalist nature” of the specific duties, and compared them to previous duties under the Disability Discrimination Act which were “precise tools to drive change and help authorities to understand how they may be discriminating and how proactively to employ people, deliver services and do work in ways that were likely to produce more equal outcomes”.
The specific duties are contained in new regulations finally approved by MPs this week – already more than three months after the single equality duty came into force – but will not now be debated in the Lords until after the summer recess.
In a debate on the regulations, Labour’s shadow equalities minister Fiona Mactaggart said the requirement for a public body to publish just one equality objective every four years was “pretty pathetic” and would mean a “miracle worker” would be needed to fulfil the equality duty.
She said: “We have ended up with a muddle. Local authorities and public bodies are not sure what is necessary and what makes a difference.”
She added: “The government are doing the least that they believe they can get away with, and they should be ashamed of themselves.”
But Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat equalities minister, said the regulations achieve “an appropriate balance between greater flexibility and reduced bureaucracy and will make public bodies accountable to the public who use their services rather than to Whitehall”.
Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said after the debate that the specific duties should have been designed to help councils and other public bodies avoid legal action, but the regulations would instead see more court cases and public bodies taking fewer “proactive” steps towards equality.
But Kane insisted that disabled people would still be able to use the equality duty to hold public bodies to account and uphold their “rights and equality”.
The Government Equalities Office (GEO) had intended the regulations to come into force before the summer recess. A GEO spokeswoman was unable to explain the reason for the delay.
Kane said the delays around key elements of the Equality Act showed “a complete lack of leadership from this government on equality and shows that it just isn’t a priority”.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission declined to comment on any of the issues around the specific duties.
14 July 2011