Now to save the Public Sector Equality Duty
The racist murder of Stephen Lawrence sparked a movement in this country aiming to put equalities at the heart of everything we do.
But this government has been steadily trying to unpick that work. It’s been trying to scrap the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s legal mission statement, but looks to have given up after the Lords opposed it again last night – 20 years ago to the day of Stephen’s death.
It also has in its sights on the Public Sector Equality Duty – the legal requirement that all public bodies have “due regard” to equalities in everything they do. It is reviewing this duty, which we have every reason to be worried about, as my colleague Sally Brett has argued.
We surveyed unions for our response to the review. They are absolutely clear: the duty provides a vital spark to get public sector employers to take equalities seriously, especially critical in a climate of deep budget cuts, and a cynical government.
For example, Prospect helped to develop a “diversity dashboard” with the Ministry of Defence which provides quarterly updates on equality objectives. This has helped them narrow the gender pay gap, and identify significant gaps in other areas such as race.
PCS secured more part time work to help women with caring responsibilities. And the FDA convinced the civil service to change the new pension scheme to ensure that it didn’t disadvantage those with potentially life threatening illnesses.
Unions have used the duty to help disabled workers to good effect: to better accommodate them during an office refit, prevented lift closures that would have hurt them, and ensure that they were no longer overrepresented in a redundancy pool. There’s also a great case where the union convinced an employer to appoint a dedicated HR adviser for disabled people.
Unions have used the duty tirelessly to reduce the unfairness of cuts. In one case, UNISON found that planned cuts to overtime by one council would have affected 1 in 2 black workers, but only 1 in 10 white workers. Women would also have been hit harder than men despite already earning on average £6,000 less than them. The council changed its plans. UCU convinced one university not to close courses because they were mainly taken by women.
Wouldn’t all this good stuff have happened anyway? Sure, with a few enlightened employers. But for the vast majority, the duty has compelled them to think and engage. “Had the duty not been in place” said one PCS rep, “it is likely that significant detriment would have been imposed on some groups”. Instead unions are able to “raise and address issues quickly to get them resolved”.
And if the duty was scrapped ? As one UNISON rep at a local authority said:
A voluntary scheme would lead to councils not taking equality issues into account when faced with such massive cuts to their funding… If anything the equality duties need to be strengthened.
Equality Impact Assessments have played a vital role in carrying out the duty, despite our Prime Minister “calling time” on them.
But this “extra tick box stuff” as he maligns them, has led employers “not to close an office or to manage closure and transfer in a different way,” says the FDA, or “shift the burden of closures away from already marginalised communities” says PCS.
Even where an impact assessment has been “done very badly” or “after the policy has been developed”, it has helped the union start a conversation with the employer about how to improve.
In most cases however, unions found impact assessments were “very simple” and could be “easily adapted for any… service provider”, or could be easily improved through collaboration with the employer.
The irony here is that the government has been undermining attempts to make the duty more user-friendly. It shelved a civil service-wide award recognising “transformative impact assessments” sponsored by the FDA. It refused to enact the EHRC’s draft statutory code of practice on implementing the duty. And it’s buried the best practice guidance on the duty from the cabinet office.
The FBU and education unions have also pointed out that national equality standards and guidance in their sectors have been badly eroded under this government. Equalities staff are also facing the axe: in one local authority a community engagement team with responsible for equalities has been slashed from 12 to just three staff.
This negative environment is starting to bite. As one PCS officer said, employers “are quick to point out that [Impact Assessments] are no longer a lawful requirement” and that employers were reverting back to their “old ways.”
Despite these odds, the duty has led to positive engagement: for one local council it had underpinned a long term cultural change to better engage with minority groups; for one campus it led to the creation of a new LGBT staff and students group on campus. It has also led to local authorities ensuring transport providers improve access for disabled people, installing audio loops in all public buildings, and helping disabled tenants find appropriate housing.
At our Black Workers Conference last week, I listened to delegate after delegate speak about how they used the duty to ensure that employers were not disproportionately getting rid of black workers, or continuing to pay women less than men or ignoring the needs of disabled workers. For them, this wasn’t some bit of bureaucracy but a vital tool advancing equalities in workplaces across this country, and a vital tool we need to defend.