The government has been forced to strengthen some of the rules on how public bodies should promote equality, after its draft plans triggered a wave of protests from disabled activists and other equality campaigners.
The Government Equalities Office (GEO) published draft regulations in August, describing how councils, health trusts and other bodies in England should work to eliminate discrimination and harassment and promote equality under the new Equality Act.
But critics said the plans – which described the “specific duties” public bodies would have to meet to comply with the act’s public sector equality duty – were an “enormous setback” in the battle for disability rights.
Now, following further fierce criticism during a consultation, the GEO has retreated in some key areas, although early reaction from disabled people’s organisations suggests disappointment at a failure to make more significant changes.
In its response to the consultation, the government says the regulations will now make it clear that public bodies will not be able to escape with setting just one equality objective every four years, but will have to “focus on their most pressing equality gaps”.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had warned that the draft regulations would make it possible “for a public body to ignore the most serious inequalities in selecting its objectives”.
Among other changes, public bodies will now have to show exactly how they consulted with disabled people and other groups, “particularly when they are setting their equality objectives”.
The government had faced fierce criticism for watering down the current legal duty on public bodies to consult with disabled people about their equality plans.
But there will be no specific duty on public bodies to take equality issues into account in procurement, with many respondents describing this as a lost opportunity to use the spending power of government to make equality gains.
A specific procurement duty would have forced public bodies explicitly to consider disability and other equality factors in the £125 billion a year they spend buying goods and services from the private sector.
Marije Davidson, RADAR’s public affairs manager, said: “Whilst the government’s response has recognised some of our concerns, the changes are little more than a clarification and don’t go as far as we wanted.
“We’ll now have to make sure that when the duties start, we make the most of them so that the public sector does its bit to deliver disability equality.”
The government’s response to the consultation was published on the same day that the EHRC published guidance on how public bodies will be able to meet their obligations under the equality duty, which comes into force on 6 April.
13 January 2011