The government has caused alarm among campaigners by extending its assault on the laws that protect disabled people and other minority groups from discrimination.
Last year, the government announced plans to weaken the “specific duties” that public bodies such as schools and local authorities have to meet to comply with the Equality Act’s single equality duty, and to review the effectiveness of these specific duties in 2013.
But the government has now announced – as part of its “red tape challenge” that aims to “reduce the burden of regulation” – that it wants to bring forward that review and look at the equality duty itself, a vital part of equality legislation.
The equality duty says that public bodies – such as schools and 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.
Mike Smith, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, said he was surprised and “concerned” that the government had extended its review to include the equality duty, because it had “made a real impact”.
He said the duties had made a “real, positive difference to the lives of disabled people in their local community”.
He added: “They are of value and therefore should be kept. In the last three years we have supported a lot of cases that have relied on the [general and specific duties] to make sure public bodies make fair decisions in the right way and properly consider equalities.
“It would be harder for disabled people to challenge bad decisions if those duties did not exist and therefore I would be concerned if they disappear.”
Liz Sayce, Disability Rights UK’s chief executive, added: “The public sector equality duty is an important driver for public bodies to make sure that they get their policies and practices right for disabled people and do not fall foul of discrimination.”
Among a series of other announcements made as part of its “red tape challenge”, the government confirmed that it was “delaying” the implementation of “dual discrimination laws”.
The laws, again introduced through Labour’s Equality Act, would have allowed 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.
Smith criticised this decision, and said: “People don’t live their lives in single boxes, with single labels. This would have allowed people to have more complex and meaningful explanations of why stuff had happened to them.”
The government is also delaying the implementation of equality laws that would have stopped landlords preventing reasonable requests from disabled tenants to make physical alterations to communal hallways and entrances.
Smith said the failure to bring this law in would “make it harder for disabled people to live independently in the community”.
Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary and minister for women and equality, said that “over-burdening businesses benefits no one, and real change doesn’t come from telling people what to do”.
She said her announcement “strikes the right balance between protecting people from discrimination and letting businesses get on with the job”.
17 May 2012