A consultation on the public sector equality duty under the Equality Act 2010 has been launched by the Government Equalities Office.
The Equality Act 2010: The public sector Equality Duty document, launched by equalities minister Lynne Featherstone last week, seeks views on draft regulations which recommend increasing the volume of information that public sector organisations must publish.
According to the Government, the aim is to make efforts to reduce inequality more transparent and scrap what it calls “box-ticking bureaucracy”.
The equality duty will replace three separate duties that require government departments, local authorities and other public bodies to take into account gender, race and disability equality both as employers and when making policy decisions and delivering services. The duty simplifies this requirement and also extends it to fully cover age, religion and belief, sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
Under the plans, employers will be expected to publish information relating to their performance of the general equality duty every year. Public bodies with 150 staff or more will be required to publish data on equality in their workforces. Employers will also be required to carry out impact assessments on their policies and practices, and set outcome objectives every four years.
The general duty is expected to come into force in April 2011, and one of the key changes from the previous Government’s proposals is that organisations will have the freedom to buy goods or services from suppliers in the way they see fit, rather than it being prescribed how they should conduct procurement activity in terms of meeting specific equality criteria.
A Government Equalities Office spokesman said: “It’s all about providing a legislative framework within which public bodies have the freedom to act in the way that suits their customers best, with the public able to hold them to account through the regular publication of information.”
However, not everyone is convinced by the proposals. Susie Munro, employment law editor at XpertHR, said public bodies would now have more room to manoeuvre when it comes to requiring suppliers to meet equality standards. She questioned whether or not the less prescriptive duties would be as effective in achieving progress in the equality agenda.
“If public bodies approach this intending to do the minimum required to be acting lawfully, it’s likely that the new approach will be less effective,” she warned. “Many public bodies will already be committed to finding practical ways of eliminating discrimination in their workforce and in the services they provide, but without specific obligations enshrined in legislation, some might see it as a chance to put less emphasis in this area while their priority is dealing with budget cuts.”
However, Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believes the consultation is headed in the right direction, having heard stories of contractors completing long questionnaires about policies and practices. “Looking at [the document] it’s quite a measured decision. I think it’s quite sensible,” he said.
But Gillian Hibberd, strategic director (resources and business transformation) at Buckinghamshire County Council, warned that public sector bodies were already struggling to cope with major budget reductions.
“I think this will do little to change the equality profile of our organisations,” she told Personnel Today. “We all know that improving diversity makes good business sense and this is the driver that will enable us to deliver change. But placing additional burdens on the public sector to publish data is not going to make a sustainable difference to process or practice.”