Kevin Curley: The public sector equality duty is not to be confused with deregulation

The equality duty is not red tape but an essential tool for modern government, writes our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

It's a pity that the government's current review of the public sector equality duty has become mixed up with its commitment to reducing red tape.

This has made equalities groups anxious that the review is about cutting the administrative burden of the duty on public bodies rather than improving the way it works.

In effect the equality duty - part of the Equality Act 2010 - pushes councils and others into talking to charities about important issues. In Ealing and Liverpool, women's groups have highlighted forced marriage, female genital mutilation and sexual violence - issues that would otherwise be overlooked as local services are commissioned. In Leicester, the council implemented changes to the city centre that made life more difficult for blind and sight-impaired people, so Vista, the advocacy charity, used the equality duty to push for improvements: it now sits on the inclusive design panel with the council and examines all plans for open-access areas.

The Home Office review group is chaired by Rob Hayward, a former Conservative MP, founder of the UK's first gay rugby club and a trustee of Stonewall, the gay rights campaigning charity. His anti-discrimination credentials are in little doubt, but he leads a committee made up entirely of politicians and public officials. Nobody from an equalities organisation sits on the review group. As the campaigner Doreen Lawrence warned in a letter to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, objecting to the composition of the group: "Those who are held to account by legislation may have radically different views from those who wish to use the legislation to hold public bodies to account." It increases my suspicion that the review is more to do with removing a perceived burden from public bodies than with finding more effective ways to promote equality.

Surely it's a sound principle that you determine what people really need before you decide priorities. No commercial organisation would launch a product without finding out what customers want. In public services planning, we need to know about the needs of deaf children, the Cypriot community, young Jewish people or women fleeing violence. As Gay Moon, special legal adviser at the influential Equality and Diversity Forum, puts it: "The equality duty enables you to offer the council perspectives they haven't considered. It's common sense to find out what people need - not to plan on the basis of what you think they need'."

It's clear to me that the equality duty is not red tape but an essential tool for modern government. The government itself said in its 2010 equality strategy that "failure to tackle discrimination and provide equal opportunities harms individuals, weakens our society and costs our economy". What we need from this review is strong endorsement of the equality duty and an assertion that you cannot have a fair society unless you go out of your way to find out what disadvantaged people need.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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