The equality watchdog has given government departments and local authorities a fresh warning to put “fairness” towards disabled people at the heart of their decisions on cutting spending.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) warning came in a new guide laying out how public bodies should comply with their duties to disabled people, women and minority ethnic groups under equality laws when making spending decisions.
It also reminds them of their obligations under the Human Rights Act.
The EHRC warned that failure to meet their duties could result in “poor and unfair decisions that could discriminate against particular equality groups and perpetuate or worsen inequality” and put them at risk of “costly, time-consuming and reputation-damaging legal challenges”.
And it said the short guide would also help campaigners “hold decision makers to account” over their spending decisions.
The guide’s publication comes only weeks after the EHRC was forced to ask the government for a second time to prove it was fulfilling its legal duty to consider the impact of spending cuts on disabled people, minority ethnic groups and women.
The commission warned then that it could take legal action if the Treasury and other government departments failed to provide “robust evidence” that they had met their public sector equality duties on disability, race and gender.
Those duties mean public authorities must have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and promote equality, for example by assessing the “equality impact” of proposed spending cuts.
The EHRC guidance says the law “does not prevent government officials from making difficult decisions” or those that “may affect one group more than another”.
But it stresses that spending decisions must be made “in a fair, transparent and accountable way, considering the needs and the rights of different members of the community”.
Helen Hughes, the EHRC’s acting chief executive, said the role of the legislation – and the commission – was to “ensure that fairness and transparency are at the heart of decisions”.
She warned policy-makers that they must “think carefully about what they can do to mitigate” spending decisions that “have a disproportionate impact” on a particular group.
An EHRC spokeswoman said publishing the guide was about “driving the point home” to public bodies and “making sure they have the tools to do what’s required of them by law”, and not due to any frustration with the government over its failure to prove it had met its equality duties on spending cuts.
She said “quite robust” talks were still ongoing with the Treasury “to gather the necessary information to come to a view as to whether they have met and will continue to meet their legal obligations”.
6 October 2010