The attacks on equality have come so thick and fast from this government it is sometimes hard to keep up. We’ve produced briefings, guidance and monitoring advice on the impact on women, disabled people, BME workers and others of austerity and public spending cuts. But what some people are not aware of is how the government is, in parallel, dismantling the whole infrastructure that supports those who still suffer significant inequalities linked to their gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation etc.
In the next year, important protections in the Equality Act 2010 are likely to be repealed because they are considered “unnecessary or disproportionate burdens on business”. The proposed repeals are supposedly in response to the Red Tape Challenge. However, most of the several thousand responses to the Equality Act pages of the Red Tape Challenge website called for this piece of legislation to be left alone or strengthened.
Individuals who have suffered discrimination are facing increasing obstacles when it comes to enforcing their rights. The Discrimination Law Association has said that without the statutory discrimination questionnaires – one of the measures the government plans to repeal – “in many cases it will be almost impossible to prove discrimination”.
The loss of the EHRC grants programme and significant cuts to legal aid for civil law will make it increasingly difficult for individuals to find affordable sources of legal advice and representation if they do with to pursue a claim. Citizen’s Advice told the TUC: “The loss of the EHRC grants programme has had a devastating impact on CABx’ clients and our ability to deliver discrimination casework and representation in England”.
If an individual does make it to tribunal, they will have to pay at least £1,200 to get their case heard – £250 just to initiate the claim and £950 to get it heard – with possible further fees for tribunal services as the case proceeds and with no guarantee that the money will be repaid if the claim succeeds.
On top of this, the government is imposing massive spending cuts on our statutory equality body, the EHRC. Its budget is to be reduced by over 60% by 2014/15 and staff numbers will fall by 72%, with further cuts anticipated in the next spending review. Its helpline, staffed by experts and supported by legal staff at EHRC, is soon to be outsourced to a large private sector outsourcing company. It is also facing significantly more ministerial interference in its activities and has the threat hanging over it that this time next year it could have its functions transferred to other new or existing bodies.
Many civil society organisations, that final pillar of support for individuals, are closing or are significantly reducing their services as funding dries up. They are also struggling to have their voices heard by policymakers, as Vivienne Hayes from the Women’s Resource Centre told us:
“Women’s organisations in particular are facing crisis or even closure. In this time of uncertainty, our voices are being increasingly marginalised and we are not part of the consultation process when key decisions are being made which affect women’s lives.”
The Public Sector Equality Duty, which encouraged engagement with those who are disadvantaged or who have faced particular barriers to participating in public life, could also soon face repeal. The government has embarked upon a review of the Duty, to conclude in March 2013, in line with its “strong desire to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy where it exists and consider alternatives to legislation”. Could this have anything to do with the legal challenges the government and public bodies have faced in recent years for their failure to consider equality and the impact on vulnerable individuals when cutting public services?
For further information see the TUC report “Two steps forward, one step back: How the coalition is dismantling our equality infrastructure” which was written for a Congress fringe meeting on this topic earlier this week.