An equalities minister has caused bemusement among members of the disability movement after claiming it was illegal for them to reserve jobs solely for disabled people.
Maria Eagle – a former disabled people’s minister – made the comments this week during a one-off evidence session on the work of the Government Equalities Office.
During questioning from MPs on the communities and local government committee about disability measures in the equality bill, Eagle made it clear that “positive action” – favouring the disabled person when faced with two equally qualified job candidates – was legal and would stay legal under the bill.
But she also appeared to say that only allowing disabled applicants to apply for a particular job was illegal and would remain so in the equality bill.
Asked whether it was legal to state in an advert that only disabled people could apply for a job she replied: “That isn’t permissible, no, I don’t think that is permissible, no.
“There are some posts under previous – I think the race legislation – that were reserved in that way but not under the disability legislation.”
Reserving posts for disabled people is a widespread practice both in disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and across the wider disability sector.
Jaspal Dhani, the new chief executive of the United Kingdom’s Disabled People’s Council – who himself was appointed to a “reserved post” – said he believed the minister’s comments were “inaccurate”.
He said: “It is important for DPOs because you want to have employees that represent the community you serve and have that personal experience.”
Caroline Ellis, joint deputy chief executive of RADAR, said she also believed the minister had made a mistake.
She said: “If we wanted to reserve a post for a disabled person, there is nothing to stop us doing that.
“There is no limit to the extent in which you can do positive action. We do that and nobody has ever challenged that.”
She said recruiting to reserved posts was a widespread practice by DPOs, and added: “Basically, Eagle’s got it wrong.”
Dr Phyllis Starkey, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “I understand how important it is to get clarity on this matter and once we have seen the record of what the minister actually did say, it may be that we will need to seek clarification from the minister.”
The Government Equalities Office said it could not comment until the “corrected oral evidence from the session” was available in writing.
28 January 2010