Earlier this month, Baroness [Jane] Campbell secured her first victory over the government in the Lords, by defeating plans to remove section three of the Equality Act 2006 – the EHRC’s “general duty” – as part of coalition efforts to reduce “unnecessary red tape”.
The crossbench peer’s plea to keep section three was backed by many other leading human rights experts in the Lords, during the report stage of the enterprise and regulatory reform bill.
But the bill is set to return to the House of Commons on 15 April, and the government is believed to want to overturn her amendment.
Section three describes how the watchdog should encourage and support a society where there is respect for human rights and the dignity and worth of every individual, mutual respect between groups, and where “each individual has an equal opportunity to participate”.
Baroness Campbell told Disability News Service this week that the general duty played a vital in promoting disabled people’s rights.
She said she knew that disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) were “under so much pressure” with the battle against government cuts, but appealed to them to lobby MPs in the lead-up to the section three vote.
During the bill’s passage through the Lords, she said she had received no briefings from disability organisations on the need to protect section three, apart from a joint publication from equality groups.
She said: “They don’t seem to be all up in arms about this, but they should.”
Baroness Campbell said she hoped DPOs would share examples with MPs of breaches of disabled people’s rights, in order to demonstrate the importance of section three.
She pointed to two reports published earlier that day that highlighted the need for the general duty.
A government-funded study, by the Norah Fry Research Centre, found that men with learning difficulties died 13 years sooner on average than men in the general population, with the average woman with learning difficulties dying 20 years sooner than women in the general population.
The study blamed delays and problems within the NHS in investigating, diagnosing and treating their illnesses.
Mencap research, based on the study, estimated that 1,200 people with learning difficulties were dying every year in England because they were not getting the right healthcare.
The second publication highlighted by the peer, from the Care Quality Commission, found many hospitals and care homes were failing to meet older people’s rights to privacy, nutrition and dignity.
Baroness Campbell later attended a joint meeting of all party parliamentary groups (APPGs), including those on equality and disability, to discuss the government’s review of the public sector equality duty (PSED).
The review was announced last year, again as part of the government’s Red Tape Challenge.
The PSED, which only came into force in April 2011, obliges public bodies to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations when forming policies.
Martyn Henderson, the Government Equalities Office official leading on the PSED review, promised that it was “not a review of whether or not there should be a duty” but of “whether the legislation is achieving its aims”.
The review is likely to report its recommendations to ministers at the end of June.
When the review panel was set up last year, it was packed with Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians, adding to fears that the government wanted to scrap the PSED as part of a new assault on disabled people’s protection from discrimination.
Baroness Campbell said it was “completely bizarre” that the government was attempting to repeal the general duty while the PSED review was still taking place, as they were “inextricably connected”.
The Labour MP Kate Green agreed, and said: “If they are successful [in repealing section three], we will be in a vacuum. We will have a PSED surviving in some form and without a context.”
The Labour MP Sandra Osborne, chair of the equalities APPG, said there were fears the review was being used to “abolish the PSED”.
She said Henderson had now “categorically said that’s not the case”, but she added: “I think we need to get that from the minister as well.”
She added: “I believe the Equality Act  is under tremendous threat from this government. I am not prepared to sit back and see it destroyed.”
19 March 2013