New improvements to equality bill, but concerns remain


New legal duties to provide accessible information should be a “major step forward” for blind and partially-sighted people and others with “print disabilities”, according to a disabled peer.

Lord [Colin] Low was speaking after the government introduced a new amendment to its equality bill, as the bill completed its report stage in the House of Lords.

The new duty makes it clear that businesses and public bodies would have to take “reasonable steps” to provide information in an accessible format so as to avoid disabled people being placed at a “substantial disadvantage”.

Baroness Thornton, for the government, said: “It is important that all kinds of organisations consider the information they provide to their audiences and what steps they may need to take to bring themselves into line with the duty.”

She said the amendment “could be a turning point for people with information disabilities”.

Lord Low said the move was “potentially a major step forward for anyone with a print disability of any kind” and provides “a much more solid basis for robust enforcement action by regulators, advocacy organisations and disabled people themselves”.

He said that businesses and public sector bodies would now “need to think carefully about what they need to do to comply with this duty and promptly take action, as I expect this duty to be vigorously enforced”.

The government also accepted two other amendments that should strengthen disabled people’s protection from discrimination.

One set of amendments, introduced by Baroness Wilkins, would strengthen the duty to provide reasonable adjustments in education – making it clear that the duty is “anticipatory”, so schools would have to predict the adjustments that future disabled pupils might need, rather than just reacting to a request from an individual pupil.

The other amendment defines the term “substantial disadvantage” – when dealing with the duty to make reasonable adjustments – as “more than minor or trivial”.

Caroline Ellis, joint deputy chief executive of RADAR, welcomed the three changes and said there had been “major progress” on the bill in recent weeks.

But she said there were still major concerns around the bill’s public sector duties to promote equality, which were currently “vague and unenforceable” and would lead to legal challenges if not tightened by the government.

She said there was a “very real risk” that the duties would be weaker than the current disability equality duty.

Meanwhile, the government’s personal care at home bill completed its committee stage in the Lords. Its report stage is due on 17 March.

4 March 2010