Kevin Curley: Minority rights suffer if not backed by law

The public sector equality duty is vital and must not be scrapped, writes our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

The Home Secretary has decided to review the public sector equality duty. Theresa May says the government wants to "reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and consider alternatives to legislation" - in this case, section 149 of the Equality Act.

Why do I see this as a threat to minorities and the voluntary groups that advocate for them? Take the judicial review involving Southall Black Sisters and the London Borough of Ealing. In 2008, the council decided to cut funding for SBS's specialist domestic violence service for black women and instead to provide an 'all-women' service with no extra funding.

At the heart of the case was the council's failure to fulfil its equality duty, then covered by section 71 of the Race Relations Act. The judge ruled that the council had failed to assess the impact of its funding change on black women before adopting a new policy. He also said that "specialist services for a racial minority from a specialist source is anti-discriminatory and furthers the objectives of equality and cohesion". SBS chair Pragna Patel, was ecstatic, saying the judgment safeguarded "a progressive notion of equality".

This action saved a council's funding for a specialist service for black women. Many local groups have since used the judgment to fight cuts or push for race and gender equality. All this flowed from the equality duty. The Home Office's own website says "the equality duty supports good decision-making - it encourages public bodies to understand how different people will be affected by their activities so that policies meet different people's needs".

The Home Secretary also wants to "consider alternatives to legislation". This is a common theme in the coalition's dealings with local councils. "Set them free from targets and central controls" is the cry. But it's clear that minority rights suffer when they are not underpinned by law. Look at the experience of Travellers. The duty requiring councils to provide sites was abolished and Travellers were encouraged to buy their own land. Only 2 per cent of their planning applications for new sites have been successful. Our planning system invariably results in majority interests taking precedence over those of the minority. As a consequence, Travellers are forced to bring up their children in lay-bys.

The days of using the duty to challenge councils' funding decisions are probably over. Councils know they have only to show that they have thought about minorities properly before making their cuts. But the duty does at least require decision-makers to consider the impact new policies will have on women, or disabled, gay or black people before cutting funding. This gives scope for local advocacy and campaigning groups to influence politicians and officials. This is not unnecessary bureaucracy, but a vital part of local democracy. If you think this matters, it's time to make your voice heard in defence of the equality duty.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser and former chief executive of Navca

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