Is the Public Sector Equality Duty safe in the Coalition’s hands?
The equality duty in the Equality Act 2010 (s.149) obliges public authorities to have due regard to equality in all that they do. When the duty is properly implemented it should lead to more efficient and effective public service delivery – better serving those most in need and tailoring services to an increasingly diverse population – as well as providing more equal employment opportunities within the public sector.
The duty has its roots in the old race equality duty and the Macpherson Inquiry which found that the Metropolitan Police Service had not properly investigated and prosecuted the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence because of “institutional racism”. As Lord Macpherson said:
“It is incumbent on every institution to examine their policies and the outcomes of their policies and practices to guard against disadvantaging any section of our communities.”
But David Cameron and other coalition ministers now seem to think that this examination and consideration of equality impact will just routinely happen without any statutory obligation. As Cameron said to the CBI last November:
“We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making the policy. We don’t need all this extra tick-box stuff…”
Interesting that this assertion comes at a time when those holding the top jobs in Whitehall are becoming more male and pale.
Jo Swinson, BIS and Equality Minister, said in a recent LibDem Voice blog:
“As Liberal Democrats we don’t think equalities should be about ticking-boxes or regulatory hoops – it’s too important to be relegated to an administrative duty.”
But she fails to set out how, without a statutory equality duty, you ensure proper consideration is given to equality, especially at a time when public servants are under great pressure to meet this government’s main objectives – slashing budgets and implementing yet more public service reform.
Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Local Government recently sent a letter to all leaders and chief executives of local authorities telling them not to carry out Equality Impact Assessments and to stop doing equality monitoring, which the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has described as “unnecessary” and “intrusive” and a waste of taxpayers’ money. A similar letter has been sent from the Cabinet Office to all Whitehall departments urging them to take the lead and show the rest of the public sector that EIAs should be stopped.
Let’s not forget too that this Government, while agreeing to implement the new equality duty, took steps that were likely to reduce its impact – watering down the supporting specific duties legislation for England and non-devolved public bodies and refusing to implement a statutory code of practice prepared by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Against this backdrop, the Government is currently undertaking a review of the duty. It announced this last May as part of its response to the Red Tape Challenge on Equalities, saying the review was in line with its “strong desire to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy where it exists and consider alternatives to legislation”. The full details of how it was going to be carried out were published in November and provided little reassurance to those of us concerned with the direction the review was taking. The steering group that is leading it is largely made up of those responsible for delivering public services (i.e. those who should be held to account by the duty) and it was not clear how those representing public service users and workers might be included in the process.
The TUC wrote to Government ministers to express our view that the review is premature (it is less than two years since the new duty took effect and just over a year since the specific duties had to be complied with), lacked objectivity and was rushed (the current published timetable suggests recommendations will be presented to ministers in April when the steering group only met for the first time in December).
We have not been alone either. Doreen Lawrence and Dr. Richard Stone voiced their concerns in a letter to all political party leaders and, in an interview in the Guardian in December, Mrs. Lawrence explained why she felt the need to act:
“I think about what it was like before the inquiry… the inequality, within institutions and within their work. If we don’t make a stand we will go back to those days and I don’t think we should”
Neither does the TUC.
We know that the duty has not worked as well as it should in every public authority. But equally there are many examples of the duty having made a real and positive difference to some service users and public sector workers – of it having provided trade unions and others with an important statutory basis from which they can fight for the voices of the most vulnerable and those most likely to be discriminated against to be heard. Without it, or a weaker version of it, this will become ever harder in an already difficult climate. Given what we’ve already seen from this Government we need to make sure that we are ready to defend what we’ve got, as well as calling for some of the weaknesses, especially the compliance and enforcement mechanisms for the duty, to be improved.
A TUC briefing is available on the equality duty and the current review, including the experiences of union officers and representatives of the duty.