Commentators fond of using the term “political correctness gone mad” will no doubt be having a field day over new laws making it illegal for police forces to discriminate against disabled staff and job candidates. But senior HR professionals in the police and lawyers have dismissed suggestions that forces will have to employ people not up to the job.
Part III of the Disabilities Discrimination Act, effective from the beginning of this month, makes it unlawful to treat staff with disabilities less favourably. It also puts the onus on employers to make positive adjustments to accommodate disabled staff.
Before 1 October, the Act only covered members of police back-office staff. Now all police officers are included in the legislation – including those who apply to join.
This means blanket recruitment bans have now been lifted in the police and fire services. The act has also been extended to include small businesses of 15 employees and less and prison officers.
The extension of the Act has resulted in suggestions that the police could end up employing people who are not up to the job. But such a situation could not be further from the truth, insisted Martin Tiplady, Metropolitan Police HR director.
“Each candidate will be treated as an individual,” he said. “Once they are passed through the initial stage of assessment, consideration will be given to whether they are physically fit to be a police officer.”
By making the Met accessible to as many people as possible, Tiplady believes it will better represent the people it serves. “This can only help us provide Londoners with a better service – a service for everyone, whether disabled or not,” he said.
Like other organisations, the Act will affect the Met in several key areas, including recruitment; training; promotion and selection; pensions; and the everyday workplace.
Michael Ball, employment legal expert with Manchester law firm Halliwells, said the police would now have a duty to consider all applications from potential applicants – whether disabled or otherwise. “Emotive suggestions that the police will have to employ people that can’t do the job clearly don’t apply,” he said. “It will still mean that applicants must be capable of doing what is required of them.”
The law also covers less visible disabilities. People with diabetes, for example, will have the right to go to a tribunal if they feel they were discriminated against when applying for a job or while employed.
Support groups have welcomed the move. “Blanket bans assume all people with diabetes are the same and this is simply not the case,” Douglas Smallwood, chief executive of Diabetes UK, said. “I hope this will put an end to any discrimination in the emergency services.”
The result, said Tiplady, is that disabled people will have more say in the way London is policed and how the Met deals with disability issues. “This can only help further improve the quality of service we provide to Londoners,” he said.
It is clear that the Met backs the law change, but the impact of getting things wrong would be phenomenal, admitted Centrex, the National Police Training Centre. Any breach of the new rules would be likely to cost more in terms of knock-on effects than it would in terms of damages, it said, listing a series of scenarios.
Details of any breach would be open to public scrutiny through the media. This would mean that everyone – including potential applicants to the force – would be aware of the discriminatory practices that could occur in a force.
Forces would be seen to not be disability-aware and this could reduce the number of applications for posts in the police. Poor publicity related to a disability case could deter disabled applicants from taking up the role of police officer.
Able-bodied officers injured in the line of duty would question the ability of the organisation to provide the appropriate network of support and work for them and the community served by the police would also be affected, Centrex said. Disabled people could also lose faith in the police, becoming reluctant to report crime and less likely to apply for a job with the force.
To minimise the chances of any of this happening, the Met has put in place a series of measures
A Strategic Disability Team was formed more than 18 months ago under the leadership of Linda van den Hende, the key function of which was to educate Met employees at all levels on issues concerning disability.
“This is a real opportunity to make the organisation fully inclusive for disabled officers,” van den Hende said. “It gives people who in the past were unable to join the service an opportunity to join, making the Met much more reflective of society.”
Conferences and workshops were organised to inform staff about the Act and its implications on the service. The team also visited all 32 of Met’s boroughs to advise HR managers and offer assistance.
A series of seminars raising awareness of dyslexia were held, and the team organised deaf-awareness training with the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. This covered all managers and colleagues of deaf, deafened and hard-of-hearing staff.
As well as offering staff face-to-face advice, the strategic disability team has also produced a series of easily accessible documents. These deal with issues such as contacting deaf members of the community and dyslexia.
Meanwhile, a Disabled Staff Association was formed to offer an alternative avenue of support to disabled officers and staff. Its success has been such that a national association has been established.
The Met acknowledges that it – and all other police forces – have a lot of work on their hands. But the result should mean that the service is representative of the community and provides services accessible to disabled people.
Deputy commissioner Ian Blair said he was committed to ensuring that disabled staff are given the opportunity to participate in as wide a range of roles as possible within the force. “We value their daily input into the organisation and making London safer,” he said. “The introduction of this new legislation further supports their rights.”
Make reasonable adjustments now
Anti-discriminatory law is made up of three main statutes, dealing with sex, race and disability.
The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was passed in 1995 and has since been amended. It shares some features of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and the Race Relations Act (1976). These outlaw discrimination on the grounds of disability, sex or race.
Employers must make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate the needs of disabled people. Failure to do so cannot be justified, although what is “reasonable” remains open to question.
To bring proceedings under the DDA, a complainant must first show that they fall within the definition of a disabled person. They must then prove their treatment was unjustified. They would not have to “prove” their sex or race in the same way.