New government plans for how public bodies should promote equality are an “enormous setback” in the battle for disability rights, according to horrified disabled people’s organisations and activists.
The Government Equalities Office consultation describes how public bodies such as councils, health trusts, police forces and government departments should eliminate discrimination and harassment and promote equality under the new Equality Act.
But campaigners have reacted with horror to the draft regulations, which describe the act’s “specific duties”, most of which will come into force in April 2011.
Under the government’s plans, councils and other public bodies would no longer have to set out how they plan to achieve their disability equality objectives.
They would merely have to publish at least one equality objective –which would not even need to be disability-related – with no duty to achieve it or explain how it would be achieved.
They would also have to publish statistics showing progress on equality issues, which the government claims will allow groups and individuals to “apply public pressure to drive a faster pace of change”.
The government also wants to scrap the legal duty for public bodies to consult with disabled people in advance about what action they plan on disability equality.
The Government Equalities Office said its new approach would “encourage public bodies to concentrate on achieving outcomes, rather than describing processes”.
But Caroline Gooding, an equality consultant and a former director with the Disability Rights Commission, said the draft duties were an “enormous setback” and would “put the brakes on the progress that we had begun to see”.
She has been examining research on the current disability equality duty – which will be replaced by the new laws – and has found that “time and time again it says the requirement to involve disabled people has been hugely productive in plans to promote equality”.
Instead of having to describe the actions they will take on equality, public bodies such as the Department of Health will now just be able to “pluck out of the air” a single equality objective.
Gooding added: “It will make it much harder for people working within public authorities to argue that effective action needs to be taken.”
Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said the proposals “abandon the principle of mainstreaming equality” and “reduce to an absolute bare minimum the requirement of public authorities to take action to advance equality for disabled people”.
She said: “Authorities could take no more than one equality objective across all functions and all equality groups over a four-year period and then still take no action to achieve it.
“It makes a mockery of the idea of the goal of advancing equality for disabled people.”
RADAR said it was “extremely concerned” by the government’s plans. It said the existing specific duties had “empowered disabled people and disability groups to hold public bodies to account” and placed disabled people “at the heart of policy making and service development”.
Liz Sayce, RADAR’s chief executive, said: “We do not share the optimism of the coalition government that public sector professionals will do the right thing.
“Whilst some organisations will continue to build on the good work that they have been doing in the last few years, many others will fail to deliver disability equality without the steer that comes from the existing duties.”
The Scottish government and Welsh assembly government will issue their own consultations on the specific duties.
The consultation ends on 10 November. To take part, visit: www.equalities.gov.uk/news/specific_duties_consultation.aspx
26 August 2010