New Bill a step closer to equality

The Disability Discrimination Bill is set to revamp the existing law. But is HR ready for it? Mike Berry investigates

Broadly welcomed by disability and equal rights groups alike, the draft Disability Discrimination Bill was published by the Government in December 2003.

The Bill introduces a wide range of measures recommended by the Disability Rights Taskforce and amends the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) in a number of ways.

For employers, the most significant amendments to the current law will be an extension of the definition of disability to clearly include people with HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis from the point of diagnosis.

At present, only those with progressive conditions who experience symptoms that have an impact on their day-to-day activities are covered by the DDA.

The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) – which has been calling for a Disability Bill since it was formed in 2000 – said that, at present, hundreds of disabled people were being turned away from the DRC because the law does not protect them.

DRC spokesperson Will Dingli said: “The Bill deals with injustices caused to people with cancer, HIV and multiple sclerosis by providing protection from discrimination.

“All of these conditions attract a great deal of stigma from the point of diagnosis, and it is right that the DDA should apply from this point.”

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said the extension of the definition of disability was welcomed by its members and was significant for those who will gain protection.

It added that the Bill is unlikely to result in more than a marginal increase in recruitment or workplace adjustment costs because newly covered employees would not generally require adjustments.

In addition, the Bill includes a new duty for public sector bodies to promote disability equality in the same way as they are already required to do as a result of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

In essence, this means that public bodies would be required to consider the needs of disabled people as early as possible, and at every stage, in their policy and decision-making.

This provision will, according to the DRC, have “seismic implications in reforming practices and policies across a wide range of activities bringing about progress for all disabled people”.

But is this really the case? The message from the public sector is that it already has the correct procedures and policies in place.

The NHS Confederation, which shapes policy and represents organisations across the NHS, said the health service already takes equal opportunities for the disabled seriously as an issue.

“We have introduced strategies such as ‘Positively Diverse’ and ‘Improving Working Lives’ that include measures to improve standards in the NHS, including disability,” a spokesman said. “Despite this, it is true that staff in the NHS who have disabilities are on average less satisfied with their working lives, and the introduction of further measures to counteract such discontent should be welcomed as they help to improve the NHS as an employer,” he added.

The Employers’ Organisation for Local Government (EO) said it has actively been promoting disability equality in local government for more than 10 years and will continue to do so.

Jane Wren, head of diversity, said: “The ‘Equality Standard for Local Government’, produced by the EO, requires that authorities adopt training and development practices to support disabled staff.

“Most authorities have established procedures for discussing the requirement for reasonable adjustments with employees, potential employees and their managers. I’d be surprised if the extensions of the definition of disability would result in acts of discrimination by local authorities,” she said.

Mary Moore is head of HR policy development at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). She said that as a result of the Bill, the CPS will conduct impact assessments on all new and existing HR policies for their effect on disabled employees.

Moore said: “We already have a range of functions and practices in place to ensure equality of opportunity for all.”

“What we now need to do is work hard to ensure that these become embedded into our everyday activities.”

If nothing else, the new duty to promote equality for disabled people will ultimately ensure the public sector thoroughly scrutinises and monitors the systems it has in place.

This will ensure improved levels of compliance with the DDA and reduce the risk of complaints and legal action brought by disabled people.

Public sector bodies, the wider community and, in particular, disabled people will benefit from the increased transparency of decision-making and will be more confident that – as part of the delivery of public services – they will be fairly treated.

It is not yet clear exactly when the Bill is likely to be enacted. The DRC is actively lobbying to ensure its swift passage through Parliament, and the Government has pledged it will happen before the next general election.

It is expected that the DRC will publish draft guidance soon, providing sufficient time for employers to prepare for the legislation.

The draft Disability Discrimination Bill

How does it change the definition of disability?

HIV, cancer and multiple sclerosis sufferers will be classed as disabled from the point of diagnosis. At present, protection against discrimination is granted only once the symptoms of the condition become visible.

What will this mean in practice?

Employers will not be able to sack or downgrade any staff who reveal that they have these conditions.

How many people will this new Bill affect?

The Government estimates an extra 73,000.

What new obligations are placed on the public sector?

The Bill introduces a new duty on public bodies to promote ‘equality of opportunity’ for disabled people in the same way that is already required for people of different races. This removes the onus on individuals to challenge discrimination through the courts.

Is this part of the Disability Discrimination Act?

The proposed Bill is separate from the changes to the DDA, which will take effect from 1 October 2004, requiring service providers to make reasonable adjustments to facilitate the access to premises for disabled people.

When will the Bill become law?

The Government hopes to enact it by the end of this parliament.

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