Plans to review equality duty are ‘dramatic step backwards’ on women’s rights

Plans to abolish or weaken the Public Sector Equality Duty, which protects public sector workers from discrimination and harassement, are part of a ‘dramatic backwards step’ on women’s equality and rights, according to a new report by the Fawcett Society.

The report, Red Tape, Red Line: five reasons why government should not “drop its duty” to tackle women’s inequality’, looks at the way in which different laws and organisations concerned with progressing equality and / or preventing discrimination have come about in the last 50 years and reviews what has happened since May 2010 when the Coalition Government took power.

The report expresses particular concern about:

–          The abolition or weakening of key institutions concerned with progressing equality in the UK

–          An on-going reduction in legal requirements with regards to equalities and so a greater reliance on voluntary action to prevent discrimination

–         The dangers of abolishing or weakening the Public Sector Equality Duty, which is currently under ‘wholesale review’. It replaced existing race, gender and equality duties in 2011.

The report suggests alternative actions government could take “if it genuinely wants to improve its own effectiveness and that of the wider public sector in tackling discrimination against women and other groups”.

Ceri Goddard, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, said: “From the establishment of the Women’s National Commission in 1969 to the Equality Act in 2010, the UK has slowly strengthened its mechanisms and measures  to proactively progress equality – including gender equality. But the organisations, laws and practices that together make up the UK’s ‘equalities architecture’ are now being weakened.

“Over the past three years, key bodies tasked with working to make the UK a more equal place – such as the government’s own Equalities Office and the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission – have had their funding slashed and powers reduced. At the same time, the legislative framework around equality has been steadily chipped away – with everything from the power of employment tribunals to equal pay law weakened. Most recently, some of the key processes associated with good equality practice have been labelled ‘red tape’.

“Now, the Equality Duty is under threat. A legacy of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, the duty is designed to tackle institutional discrimination and ensure public services treat people fairly and meet different people’s needs. It requires that all public bodies, including the government, consider what the impact of their decisions might be on different groups – including women.”

The Fawcett Society says the decision to review the Duty comes after it was used in legal challenges at both a national and local level against public bodies such as the Treasury in connection with policy decisions that claimants say have negatively affected women and other groups.

Goddard says: “Dropping the duty would not only send a clear signal of how low down the priority list government sees tackling inequality, it could actually end up generating more not less bureaucracy and expense. It is basic common sense that prevention is better than cure and the duty as stands is designed to deliver this.

“The Government is plotting a new and dangerous course when it comes to equality. Stripping back legislation, undermining key organisations, and now proposing a fundamental shift in the role of the state when it comes to progressing a fairer society. After three years of steadily dismantling the UK’s equality architecture, this is a red line they must not cross. If they are not careful it won’t be red tape they cut, it will be women’s rights.

“This is no minor legal policy skirmish, this review strikes at the heart of a key question within the coalition; how much should government do to tackle inequality? The fact they are even questioning such a basic duty is hugely concerning. If we see a proposal to water down the equality duty, it will be the reactionaries not the progressives in Government who will be claiming victory.”

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