17 May 2012
The day after the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) criticised the government for failing to meet all of its obligations during the 2010 Public Spending Review, the Home Office has announced cuts to both the Equality Act and the EHRC.
Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities Theresa May this week (May 15th) announced a raft of reforms that threaten to undermine UK equality law, describing rules designed to improve the diversity of workplaces as “bureaucracy and prescription”.
Her comments came after the Equality Act was brought under the spotlight as part of the coalition’s Red Tape Challenge initiative, through which employers and the general public were invited to give feedback to the government on the legislation that affects them.
Of the 5,437 responses to the Equalities topic on the government’s Red Tape Challenge website, a huge number were opposed to making any changes to the Act and many said they wanted to see it strengthened.
But May does not allude to this in her response, instead announcing plans to scrap some parts of the Equality Act 2010, less than two years after it came into effect.
Public consultations will be launched into her proposals, which include a review of the Public Sector Equality Duty. This provision makes it the legal responsibility of public bodies to have due regard to promote equality, good relations and eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation.
In the publication On Track With Diversity 2012, which was published by the Institute of Employment Rights and ASLEF and launched at the ASLEF conference in Liverpool on May 16th, it was argued the Public Sector Equality Duty should also apply to private train operators, as they work with and are regulated by public bodies and provide a service to the public.
But May’s plans to cut this legislation could make it even more difficult for certain sectors – such as the rail industry focused on in the ASLEF report – to improve the diversity of their workforces.
The Home Secretary also announced plans to scrap the Third Party Harassment Law, under which employers are liable for the harassment of staff by customers, and proposed changes to the employment tribunal process.
The Socio-Economic Duty, under which public bodies including central and local government and the police force would have had to consider the impact of their proposals on different social classes, has been a target for May since the start of the coalition. She refused to implement that section of the Act and has now announced she will scrap it completely.
In 2010, May called the Socio-Economic Duty “ridiculous”, saying her predecessor Harriet Harman and the Labour government “thought they could make people’s lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better”.
It may come as no surprise that the hard-line Tory is opposed to such legislation, as judging by their behaviour while in power, it seems the coalition government need a law to keep them in check when it comes to ensuring all social groups and classes are considered when the impact of policy is assessed.
The EHRC reported the government failed to conduct gender analysis or equality screening before announcing the introduction of a household benefits cap. It also found Treasury ministers were not provided with information on the potential impact of the Bus Service Operators Grant on people with disabilities, or the effect of replacing the Education Maintenance Allowance on different ethnicities, genders and disabled people.
On Monday, EHRC Chair Trevor Phillips said he was “particularly pleased that the government has indicated that it will work with us over the next few years to make sure that the equality impact of policy is fully understood and taken into account before decisions are made”.
But the government responded by slashing the power of the Commission, reducing the size of its board and announcing the recruitment of a new Chairman.
Lib-Dem Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone claimed the EHRC has so far “struggled to deliver across its remit and has not demonstrated good value for money”.
What now for equalities?
Leading equality law expert Aileen McColgan last year wrote in a publication for the Institute of Employment Rights – Equality Act 2010 – that the Act was an improvement on previous discrimination law, although it still has many weaknesses.
May’s attack on this progressive Act could put recent strides forward for the disadvantaged under threat, and fairness in the workplace could suffer. The IER will be responding to the government’s consulations on this matter and urges interested parties to keep a watchful eye on this space.
Aileen McColgan’s Equality Act 2010 is now on special offer at half price. Find out more and buy online