Why the Public Sector Equality Duty matters to all of us

A very dear friend of mine posted on my Facebook wall a few weeks ago this quote, as he was concerned that we spend too much time focusing on the needs of particular groups in society:

“I am not for gay rights, I am not for women’s rights, I am not for handicapped rights, I am not for elderly rights. I am for human rights. Simply by identifying people as gay, straight, male, female, black, white, asian, Jewish, handicapped or elderly, we are only further dividing ourselves.”

I responded to his post by saying that I am also for human rights, not special rights. But in order to have human rights, we must first treat everyone equally and with respect. I believe that to achieve such equality and respect we must understand that we live in a diverse society where different people have different characteristics and that some people suffer inappropriate discrimination because of those characteristics. When people are no longer insulted or treated less fairly due their gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status, religion or belief etc, then we will be able to have genuine human rights.

It is with that in mind that I approach my current responsibilities as a member of the steering group reviewing the Public Sector Equality Duty contained within the Equality Act 2010. This is a statutory duty which, it is clear, is not welcomed by everyone. Indeed some people – and not just the usual suspects writing in the Mail and the Telegraph – consider it is a bureaucratic imposition on public authorities and those contracted to deliver public services. They point to what they consider to be unnecessary form filling, the requirement to undertake equality impact assessments before policy decisions, or the intrusive questionnaires asking people their sexuality or whether their gender now is the one assigned to them at birth.

Let us look for a moment at what the law actually says. Section 149 (1) of the Equality Act provides:

A public authority must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to—

(a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act;

(b) advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it;

(c) foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.

To me, this appears to be good law – having due regard to eliminating discrimination, advancing equality and fostering good relations. Nowhere does it say that there must consequently follow a rigid bureaucratic process. Nowhere does it specify the nature of the forms or assessments required. Nowhere does it say that every user of every service must be asked about their personal circumstances. Nor does it need to.

Several years ago in local government, we moved from a box ticking methodology monitoring how equalities policies were implemented by councils to a more holistic approach, encouraging authorities to learn more about their communities and to assess the social inclusion implications of policies by identifying which were the high risk services where people could be disadvantaged by virtue of gender, race, sexuality, disability etc.

I believe that in order to have a society where everyone is valued and the rights of each citizen are upheld, we must cherish things like the Public Sector Equality Duty. It works for all of us, but those charged with its implementation need to be more considerate in the way they approach their task. Consider where there is a real risk of failing society by not understanding where difference could leave certain groups in a less favourable position than others and put effort into that and not into bureaucratic form filling for every task.

The review of the Public Sector Equality Duty has some months to run, but I hope that it will remain firmly on the statute books, but with perhaps greater care taken in how it is used in future.

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