Amongst other so-called ‘red tape reduction’ activities, the UK Government is in the process of reviewing the Public Sector Equality Duty of the Equality Act 2010. The Steering Group undertaking this review is due to report its findings by June 2013, having taken approximately six months from the date of its first meeting to consider a range of largely desk-based research and views from primarily public sector contributors.
Concerns have been put forward by a number of organisations and individuals across Britain that the Review process is premature, rushed and lacking in objectivity. The Public Sector Equality Duties have been in place for a very short time (since October 2010 for the overarching General Duty, and since April 2011 for the English Specific Public Sector Equality Duties which are also being reviewed).
The Steering Group itself consists almost entirely of public sector representatives. It makes sense that the Review will have some focus on the experiences of the people bound by the Duties. However, these are also the people who should be held to account by the Duties. Where are the voices of those who should benefit from this?
The reason why Public Sector Equality Duties are deemed necessary is that, despite successive legal developments and policy drivers, inequalities persist in our public sector bodies.
In the thirty seven years since the Race Relations Act 1976, much progress has been made on race equality in employment and service provision. This progress, however, has been hard won, slowly built and of little use on a practical level to the many people who still suffer inequality and discrimination because of their colour, race and ethnic or national origin.
A forthcoming CRER report into employment in Scotland’s public sector will show that, at interview stage, white job applicants are almost twice more likely to be successful than minority ethnic applicants. This illustrates the need for public sector bodies to be held to account by effective Public Sector Equality Duties.
The Public Sector Equality Duty Review Steering Group’s remit explicitly excludes public consultation, although its terms of reference do commit to involving voluntary and community sector organisations through roundtable discussions. The review steering group scheduled a roundtable discussion with organisations in England in January; however we have no information as to whether this happened or what the outcome was.
A hastily announced ‘Call for Evidence’ allows organisations to submit information between March and April 2013; however only evidence on the operation of the duties will be accepted. The wording of the Call for Evidence effectively stitches up the review’s evidence base to ensure that only the public sector can meaningfully contribute.
So far there has been little public action or debate on the issue in Scotland, and CRER strongly feels that this should change. Scotland’s Specific Equality Duties are significantly more robust than those in England. However, as the current review takes in both the English Specific Equality Duties and the General Equality Duty, its outcome could have severe repercussions in Scotland.
For example, if the Review recommends repealing the General Equality Duty, the Scottish Specific Equality Duties will be voided. Under the Scotland Act 1998, the Scottish Parliament lacks the authority to create its own laws on equality. Scotland would therefore be left without the ability to legally oblige public sector bodies to take proactive steps in ensuring equality.
CRER, joined by nineteen of Scotland’s most prominent equality organisations, have extended a meeting invitation to the PSED Review Steering Group in order that Scottish organisations’ experiences and views can be reflected in the review process. So far, no reply has been received. The final line of the letter stated that “We hope that, in the interests of transparency and objectivity, you will agree to our request.” We can but hope.
Letter to Public Sector Equality Duty Review Steering Group