Public Sector Equality Duty review launched for all the wrong reasons

19 December 2012 By Carola Towle, UNISON National LGBT Officer The Public Sector Equality Duty review has been launched too early and is driven by politics, not the thirst for ending discrimination and disadvantage in our society.

Commentary icon19 Dec 2012|Comment

19 December 2012

By Carola Towle, UNISON National LGBT Officer

The Public Sector Equality Duty review has been launched too early and is driven by politics, not the thirst for ending discrimination and disadvantage in our society.

Equality legislation has taken hit after hit since the Tory-led Coalition came to power. They have repeatedly characterised equality protections as burdensome red tape, and now we end 2012 with the government critically reviewing the effectiveness of the Public Sector Equality Duty – arguably the jewel in the crown of Labour’s final act before the last general election.

UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis has written a letter to Equality Minister Maria Miller expressing his concern about the timing and nature of the review. He states: “As a union of 1.3 million members delivering services to the public, UNISON was a strong advocate for the need for an extended equality duty and welcomed its inclusion in the 2010 Equality Act. Our experience of the previous equality duties is that that they have been invaluable in placing equality at the heart of decision making and improving the delivery of appropriate services to those who most need them. Our members are involved in decision making and service delivery, as well as being service users themselves.”

UNISON has a number of concerns about this review. First and foremost, it is premature; the Equality Duty has only been in force since April last year. The specific duties for England, which underpin the general equality duty, are even more recent, having come into force five months later, after a series of delays and mixed messages.

Such an early review not only sends the wrong signal to public bodies about the importance of equality in service delivery, but is also extremely unlikely to discover much in the way of useful evidence of the effectiveness and impact of the duty. No-one can have been surprised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission report last month that only half of the English public authorities assessed had responded fully to the requirements of the specific duty regulations to publish equality information. We all know that it takes time to embed good practice.

Secondly, we are concerned about how the review has been set up. It is overseen by a steering group consisting almost entirely of those subject to the duty – those whom it is intended to hold to account. It includes people involved in free schools, NHS commissioning, a former Conservative MP, Conservative and Lib Dem Councillors and London’s Deputy Mayor for Culture and Education. It does not include representives of those who the duty is intended to benefit – disadvantaged groups, service users or workers.

If there is to be a review now, it should be an open and transparent process. There should be proper input from parliamentarians, from groups of people who parliament intended the Equality Duty to benefit – those who face particular disadvantage – and from the trade unions.

We are well aware that drivers for the review include ministerial concerns about past and potential challenges to their own decisions (recall Michael Gove’s anger when the High Court ruled he had failed to give due regard to equality when scrapping Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme) and concerns about how the Equality Duty is being used to fight spending cuts.

And this is the fundamental problem. The sole driver for any such review should be a thirst for challenging discrimination, advancing equality and fostering good relations.

Let us remind ourselves where the first of these public sector equality duties came from – the duty to promote race equality. It came from the inquiry into the failure of the police to properly investigate the racist murder of a young Black teenager – Stephen Lawrence.

We must honour Stephen’s legacy and defend the Public Sector Equality Duty. It is not a matter of red tape, but rather of the sort of society we want to live in.

The Public Sector Equality Duty review will be discussed in depth at the IER’s Equality and Discrimination Conference in Liverpool on 30 January 2013. Click here to book your place from just £25.

The IER also has a special offer on our equality law publications, with a package of six books available at just £5. Get yours now, they are going fast!

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Carola Towle

Carola Towle Carola Towle Carola Towle is UNISON’s national officer for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. UNISON’s 1.3 million members work in the public services, in the community and voluntary sector, for private contractors providing public services and in the essential utilities. UNISON has a long-standing commitment to equality at work and in how public services are delivered.