A government suggestion that the entire Equality Act could be scrapped has sparked outrage among disabled people’s organisations.
The proposal appears on the Cabinet Office’s new “Red Tape Challenge” website which was set up to seek ideas from the public on how to reduce the “burden of regulation”.
The “equalities” section of the website says the Equality Act was “designed to help ensure fairness in the workplace and in wider society” and includes “regulations and laws on discrimination and harassment”.
But it adds: “Tell us what you think should happen to this Act and why,” before suggesting a number of options, including: “Should they be scrapped altogether?”
The launch comes only weeks after the government began a review of nearly 1,300 local authority statutory duties, including a string of social care obligations, again aimed at removing “unnecessary burdens or restrictions”.
RADAR has now written to Theresa May, the home secretary and equalities minister, expressing “consternation” at the new website and “surprise and concern” at the government’s apparent “change of direction” on equality.
Marije Davidson, RADAR’s public affairs manager, suggested that the website could be breaching the government’s own legal equality duties – contained within the Equality Act – around advancing equality, eliminating discrimination and fostering good relations.
She said: “We have to see the government show leadership through promoting equality and they’re not doing this by creating a platform for stigma and prejudice.”
Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said that inviting comments on why the Equality Act should be scrapped “goes beyond farce” because the act includes “major anti discrimination statutes spanning decades and meeting international obligations”.
The Red Tape Challenge website says the government wants to “encourage greater responsibility in our society” by giving people “more freedom to do the right thing”.
And it warns that the “default presumption” will be that “burdensome regulations will go”, and if ministers want to keep them they will “have to make a very good case for them to stay”.
This raises the prospect of May – whose department has already weakened Labour’s Equality Act – being asked to explain to the Cabinet Office why the act should not be scrapped.
Kane said the website’s “open invitation to reactionaries to post views on this government website is an attempt to shift public opinion against equality”.
Davidson said the government appeared to be encouraging the message that “equality is a burden on businesses and public bodies instead of something that actually supports the economy as well as protects people who are otherwise marginalised or excluded”.
A Government Equalities Office spokesman said: “The questions that are asked in the website are standard for every piece of legislation or regulation.
“The government is committed to our recently published Equality Strategy and the Equality Act is the main piece of legislation in this area. People should not draw any conclusions about the questions asked or the Equality Act’s presence on the website.”
But he added: “We want to know whether people think the Equality Act is well designed and provides vital protections, or if they think it is badly designed, badly implemented or simply a bad idea.”
13 April 2011