Review raises questions, but threat to equality duty is lifted… for now


theweeksubThe immediate threat to a vital piece of equality law has lifted, after a government review decided it was too early to draw any conclusions about how well it was working.

The review – led by the former Conservative MP Rob Hayward – found “broad support” for the principles behind the public sector equality duty (PSED), although it criticised its uneven implementation across the public sector.

The decision to review PSED so soon after its introduction in April 2011 was seen as the latest attack by the coalition on the equality agenda, including brutal funding cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), delayed implementation of parts of Labour’s Equality Act, and failed attempts to abolish EHRC’s “general duty”.

But there was criticism of Hayward’s review from equality experts, because its conclusions were far more critical of PSED than a detailed research report commissioned by the government.

Hayward says in the review that “in far too many cases, we have uncovered useless bureaucratic practices which do nothing for equality”, with “scarce resources” being diverted from “front-line services where they are needed”, while the resulting “red tape… discredits the vitally important aim of creating a fairer, more equal society”.

His review – which was packed with Tory and Liberal Democrat politicians – recommends that public bodies adopt a “proportionate” approach to PSED, and not seek to “gold plate” equality legislation.

It concludes that the government should consider a “formal evaluation” of PSED in 2016, to examine whether it is “an effective means of achieving the goal of sensitising public bodies to equality issues and what alternatives there might be”.

But research on PSED by NatCen Social Research, commissioned by the Government Equalities Office as part of the review, produced a much more positive conclusion about how it is working.

It says there was a “strong view from research participants that broadly speaking the equality duty is working, that it has real benefits compared to previous legislation and that… it has the potential to address equality issues for a broad range of protected groups with minimal burden for the organisation”.

The research concludes that it would be “a backwards step to change it significantly”.

Of 55 written submissions to NatCen from public sector organisations, just one was described as “mostly negative” or “generally negative” about PSED, while 50 were mostly or generally positive.

Maria Miller, the culture, media and sport secretary, welcomed Hayward’s review and said she agreed there should be a full evaluation of PSED in 2016.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, welcomed the decision to make no change to PSED, but said she was concerned at the review’s focus on “minimum compliance”.

She said: “We encourage public sector organisations to embrace the PSED for the contribution it can make to tackling inequality, managing organisational risk and opportunity, making best use of resources and promoting effective policy and services.”

Neil Crowther, EHRC’s former director of human rights, said on Twitter (@neilmcrowther) that the review was “basically saying should do minimum necessary” and “concludes by saying what most people said when it was announced – far too early to tell”.

He also said there was a “rather large gap between findings of ‘independent review’ & the findings of research they commissioned”.

Baroness Onora O’Neill, EHRC’s chair and a member of the review panel, said the commission welcomed the report and would “review its findings in detail before publishing a fuller response”.

She added: “The PSED is an important way to ensure equality standards set in law are met. We look forward to studying the report’s proposals.”

PSED was a key part of Labour’s Equality Act, which became law just before the 2010 general election.

It says public bodies must have “due regard” to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation; advance equality of opportunity; and foster good relations between different groups.

11 September 2013