The new single equalities watchdog has made sweeping criticisms of government plans to reform anti-discrimination law in its first major statement on the issue. The Equality and Human Rights Commission made several objections to the government’s green paper on discrimination law – the precursor to a planned single equality act, designed to simplify existing legislation.
It followed predecessor bodies the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and Equal Opportunities Commission in criticising plans to reform existing duties on public bodies to promote race, disability and gender equality, under a single duty. The duties have proved powerful tools, including on social care. For instance, the CRE took enforcement action against the Department of Health for failing to comply with its duty to assess the race equality impact of a number of policies, including the Mental Health Act 2007.
But the government proposed ditching requirements for bodies to have “due regard to equality” in all they do – effectively removing the need for equality impact assessments. Instead, they would have to set their own priority objectives on race, gender and disability. The EHRC said the proposals would marginalise equality issues, adding: “There is a real risk that less popular issues, such as discrimination faced by gypsies and Travellers, trans-gendered people or people with mental health difficulties, may never be a priority.”
It also backed extending the duty to the other three equality areas, age, religion and sexual orientation, something the green paper does not commit to.
The commission also said the government’s plan to issue only voluntary equality standards for the private sector, to tackle issues such as disabled people’s low rates of employment, would fail to reverse entrenched inequalities. The EHRC called for “limited compulsory measures”, including making companies publish “self-portraits” of their employment practices and devise improvement plans.
It also backed extending the ban on discrimination in the provision of goods and services to age, which the government remains ambivalent on despite similar bans applying to the other five equality areas. Help the Aged’s head of public affairs, Kate Jopling said existing measures had failed to tackle discrimination in the provision of social care and health, making such a ban vital. She added: “It’s very good the commission has come out strongly against watering down the public sector duties.”
Government green paper on discrimination law