Lib Dems suggest manifesto will push back on government’s equality assault


newslatestA Liberal Democrat government would strengthen the equality watchdog, reverse some of the coalition’s attacks on equality law and toughen hate crime laws, according to a new policy paper.

Among other key policies on equality, the paper says the party would review the eligibility tests for the two main disability benefits – personal independence payment and employment and support allowance – to see if they could be merged, and even try to move towards a single support budget for disabled people.

It would also make equality issues a “core part of Whitehall’s work” by moving the Government Equalities Office (GEO), and the minister for disabled people, inside the Cabinet Office.

GEO is currently part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, while the minister for disabled people – and the Office for Disability Issues – are part of the Department for Work and Pensions.

The policy paper will be voted on at the annual party conference in Glasgow next month. If approved by conference, the policies will become Liberal Democrat party policy.

Although the Liberal Democrats will not win a majority at next year’s general election, it is possible that they could again hold the balance of power in a hung parliament, which could put them in a position to include some of their equality policies in a future coalition government programme.

The paper also raises the possibility that a Liberal Democrat government would ring-fence the funding currently provided for the Independent Living Fund when it closes next year.

The money is due to be passed to local authorities, following a coalition decision to shut the fund, but it will not be ring-fenced.

The party would also consider scrapping the use of private sector providers of disability benefits assessments – such as the unpopular Atos Healthcare and the increasingly-unpopular Capita – and look at reintroducing a public sector provider.

Other policies include introducing a “yellow card” system before a benefit sanction is applied, giving claimants a warning that their benefits could be withdrawn if they fail to comply with strict conditions.

In a wide-ranging paper, the party also promises – if elected – to promote the use of assistive technology among employers and employers’ organisations, and to review how funding is allocated under the Access to Work employment support scheme and, in the longer term, increase its funding “as resources allow”.

The policy paper says the party also wants to introduce aggravated offences for hate crimes against disabled, gay, lesbian and transgender people, allowing tougher sentencing, as there is for crimes motivated by racial and religious hatred.

And it says that a Liberal Democrat government would introduce provisions included in Labour’s Equality Act to outlaw dual discrimination, which the coalition has refused to implement.

This would allow employees such as disabled women or gay disabled men to bring claims of direct discrimination on the basis that their employers had treated them less favourably because of a combination of two “protected characteristics”, such as disability, race, age or gender.

The Liberal Democrats also want to “protect” the public sector equality duty, which is seen as a vital tool in ensuring that public bodies comply with equality law, but has come under pressure from Conservative ministers.

The party would restore the Equality Act’s protection from third party harassment for disabled people and other employees with a protected characteristic who face discrimination and harassment when carrying out their duties at work – for example on the public transport network or in shops – and who need their employers to be held accountable.

And the policy paper raises the possibility of increasing the powers of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), to allow it to issue “significant fines and enforcement notices” when “malpractice” is uncovered by an employment tribunal, and says the party would strengthen the EHRC by making it directly accountable to parliament, rather than to DCMS.

This should make it easier for the equality watchdog to hold government departments to account, says the paper.

Among transport policies, the paper says that a Liberal Democrat government would extend bus concessions for disabled people to cover peak hours, allowing many more disabled people to use their bus passes to get to and from work and to access public services and leisure facilities at a time that suits them.

And it would bring into force laws forcing taxis to carry wheelchair-users and not make an extra charge for doing so, another measure included in Labour’s Equality Act that has not been implemented by the coalition.

David Buxton, a member of the working group that drew up the policy paper, and the first Deaf BSL-user to be elected as a local councillor, told Disability News Service: “The main reason for joining the equalities policy group is that it is clear the Equality Act itself does not work or protect Deaf and disabled people.

“Everyone knows that only requiring ‘reasonable adjustments’ gives employers and providers an easy way out.

“Also, there are no test cases that Deaf and disabled people can use to show employers when they suspect discrimination.

“What I am pressing for, with the support of other members of the equalities group, is that equality law be strengthened to give more legal rights to Deaf and disabled people in the workplace and in issues to do with Access to Work, public sector procurement and mental health services.

“Liberal Democrats want to actively promote that Deaf and disabled people should be empowered to participate and contribute as equal and valued citizens in wider society.”

11 September 2014