Coalition packs equality duty review with friendly faces

The panel set up to review a vital piece of equality legislation has been packed with Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians, adding to fears of a new government assault on disabled people’s protection from discrimination.

The government also appears to have failed to include any disabled equality experts on the 11-strong review panel.

The review of the public sector equality duty (PSED) was announced by the government in May this year when it published the equalities section of its “red tape challenge”, which is looking at the “bureaucratic burdens” of legislation on business.

Leading disability rights figures have been warning that key parts of the country’s equality legislation are under threat from the government, and even fear that the coalition wants to scrap the PSED altogether.

The PSED forces public bodies – such as councils and government departments – to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination when forming policies.

The new review panel, expected to report in April 2013, is being chaired by the former Tory MP Rob Hayward, a former board member of the gay rights organisation Stonewall, who is joined by three Liberal Democrat and Tory local politicians, and Dr Munira Mirza, deputy mayor for education and culture for the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Another member is Rachel de Souza, the head of a high-performing academy school in Norfolk, who won praise from right-wing commentators by bringing in former members of the armed services to keep her school open in November 2011 when teachers were striking over their pensions.

De Souza was also one of four school leaders invited to Downing Street for a meeting with David Cameron and his education secretary Michael Gove in January.

There are two senior civil servants on the panel, Jonathan Rees, the director general of the Government Equalities Office, and Charlie Pate, a senior Treasury official.

The other three members are Stephen Otter, the former chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police; Paula Vasco-Knight, the chief executive of an NHS trust and national equality lead for the NHS Commissioning Board; and Baroness O’Neill, recently appointed by the government to chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Last month, David Cameron, the prime minister, claimed judicial reviews, public consultations and equality impact assessments (EIAs) were slowing the pace of government reforms, and announced that he was “calling time” on EIAs and “all this extra tick-box stuff”.

His comments led Sir Bert Massie, who chaired the former Disability Rights Commission, to warn that the PSED, the Equality Act and the whole equality agenda were “under threat”.

As well as the equality duty review, which has been brought forward from 2015, the government has already slashed the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), and delayed the implementation of discrimination laws that were due to be introduced as part of the Equality Act.

A Government Equalities Office spokeswoman said the steering group was “not intended to be a politically representative body” but that its members had been appointed “because of their experience across the breadth of the public sector”.

She added: “We will not pre-judge the outcome of the review. We are determined to explore the issues rigorously.”

Asked why there appeared to be no disabled person on the panel, she said: “We have not sought detailed information about individual members’ protected characteristics.

“This is because members were selected because of their experience of the public sector, not because of particular protected characteristics.”

The announcement came as a government report found strong support among businesses for equality laws that prevent discrimination in areas such as recruitment and promotion, although two-thirds of those surveyed admitted knowing nothing about the contents of the Equality Act.

The employers – mostly small and medium-sized businesses – were nearly all supportive of laws that would ban selecting an employee for redundancy on the basis of their sexual orientation (90 per cent), and refusing to promote a woman because her husband practised a particular faith (90 per cent).

But they were less supportive of laws that would prevent an employer refusing promotion to a disabled employee because they had taken a lot of sick leave in the previous year (56 per cent).

The EHRC said the report showed that most businesses “support equality in the workplace as a benefit rather than a bureaucratic burden”.

More than 1,800 businesses across England, Scotland and Wales were surveyed between November 2011 and January 2012.

6 December 2012

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Norfolk’s poorest disabled people ‘face massive fall in living standards’

The 90,000 poorest disabled people in Norfolk could see their standard of living plunge by more than a third due to government and council cuts and reforms, according to research for a disabled people’s organisation.

The research for Norfolk Coalition of Disabled People (NCODP) says the reduction will come through falls in both income and support services, and blames government cuts and tax and welfare reforms, and cuts to services planned by Norfolk County Council.

Mark Harrison, NCODP’s chief executive, described the cuts and reforms as “completely disproportionate and inevitably discriminatory” and said the report shows disabled people are being “scapegoated for a crisis which we had no part in creating”.

NCODP is now consulting a barrister about possibly seeking a judicial review of the council’s planned spending cuts.

Harrison warned that the cuts faced by disabled people in Norfolk were being mirrored across the country, although other councils had been less open and honest than Norfolk County Council about their plans.

He added: “It exposes the arrogance of the coalition government and our minister for disabled people who is claiming these savings can be achieved without affecting people’s lives, which is complete nonsense.”

The research, by economist Dr Chris Edwards, estimates that the 45,000 people in Norfolk on working age disability benefits will lose an average of £526 a year.

Of £136 million cuts in services planned by the county council over the next three years, about £45 million will “directly and exclusively” affect disabled people, leading to an average loss of £476 per year in services for 31,500 disabled people receiving adult social care services. They will also be affected by other council cuts.

The report also points to the increase in VAT from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent, which it says will mean a loss of about two per cent of income for the poorest 50 per cent of disabled people.

Edwards says other research suggests that – adding in other cuts – the 90,000 poorest disabled people in Norfolk will lose about nine per cent of their standard of living a year for the next four years, or more than a third in total.

A Norfolk County Council spokeswoman said they did not agree with how their figures had been interpreted, and that the £45 million cuts would not all “translate into direct frontline service cuts or like-for-like costs that will be absorbed by the people who use our services”.

David Harwood, the cabinet member for adult and community services, said the council had “done our best to protect and maintain services for the most vulnerable people in Norfolk” and tried to limit the impact on “front line services” by “suggesting changes to the way we work and provide services, and by proposing efficiencies”.

He said no final spending decisions had yet been taken.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com