New single equality duty ‘must be robust’


The government has set out how public sector bodies should “advance” equal opportunities and tackle discrimination through a new single equality duty.
The duty is a key part of the equality bill and will “build on” existing disability, gender and race equality duties, extending them to areas such as age and sexual orientation.
Introducing a consultation on the new duty, Maria Eagle, deputy minister for women and equality, said the government was determined “not to weaken the protection we have already put in place, but to build on, refine and remodel the best aspects of the current equality duties”.
But she said the government wanted to give greater freedom to public bodies about how they “achieve equality outcomes”, while the consultation document says the duties should be “flexible”, “light-touch” and “proportionate”.
Under the equality duty, set to come into force in April 2011, public organisations must have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation, and improve equality of opportunity, through their spending decisions, employment practices and services.
Public bodies with at least 150 employees will also have to say how many of their staff are disabled people.
All public bodies will have to use procurement – the £175 billion they spend every year on buying goods and services – to drive equality.
They will also have to consult disabled people, staff and other relevant groups, before setting out equality “objectives” and showing how they will meet them.
But they will not have to publish a separate equality scheme, as they do with the disability equality duty.
Disability rights activists raised concerns two years ago that the new equality duty could weaken protection for disabled people, as public bodies would merely have to set equality objectives, rather than having a duty to promote disability equality.
Speaking as the government published the consultation, Caroline Ellis, joint deputy chief executive of RADAR, said the equality duty needed to be “robust and practical” and not “wishy-washy”.
She said: “We will want to make sure we are not losing anything from the disability equality duty, and that there is a strong duty to involve disabled people and other groups.”
She said RADAR would also want to see “a duty that really enables disabled people to hold public authorities to account effectively” and a strong emphasis on public procurement.
The consultation closes on 30 September.

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