Review of the Public Sector Equality Duty: Whose Agenda is it anyway?

On 6th September the long anticipated review of the public sector equality duty (PSED) was published.

The review was commissioned by the government as part of the “Red Tape Challenge” with the objectives of assessing whether the PSED was achieving its aims of eliminating unlawful discrimination, advancing equality of opportunity and fostering good relations, without causing “unnecessary bureaucracy”.

Prior to its publication, there were concerns that the review may recommend that the PSED should be dropped completely. This has not happened. The review states, unsurprisingly, that it is too early to make a final judgement about the impact of the PSED since it was only introduced in 2011.

However, the tone of the review is overpoweringly negative, it suggests that many public authorities are doing too much to promote equality and should be aiming for “minimal compliance”. This demonstrates how unimportant the steering group perceives equality work to be; they believe that it is a waste of money and time to do more than the very minimum in this area. The report is thin on evidence and examples, and appears to have ignored a large amount of submissions by Trade Unions, voluntary and community sector organisations, and equality practitioners which provided evidence of the positive impact of the PSED.

The steering group express concern about the effectiveness of collecting and publishing monitoring information and recommend that public bodies should not collect information unless it is necessary for them to do so. We agree that organisations need to make it clear to those who are sharing personal information about the reasons that the data is being collected and how it will be used to improve equality outcomes and not to impart judgement.

Occasionally people can be unsure as to why they are collecting this information and need further support and guidance to ensure that it is put to good use in preventing discrimination and promoting equality. However, we would argue that monitoring is vital in order for organisations to know and understand the makeup of their staff and service users and to be able to assess what steps need to be taken in order to reduce inequalities, monitor the success of any strategies that they have put in place and progress towards equality objectives.

The steering group considers it a burden for small businesses to be compliant with equality law and recommend that public bodies remove questions on equality from the tendering process. We would argue that rather than being a burden, considering equality issues is of benefit to every organisation. It will improve their service, and retention and recruitment of staff.

Yes, we don’t want equality to be a tick box exercise; organisations do not need weighty diversity policies which sit on a shelf and nobody understands; and small businesses should not be made to jump through hoops, which have no bearing on their organisational practice. However, with the right guidance and support the Public Sector Equality Duty could be an invaluable tool in helping organisations of all sizes, working to provide a public function, ensure that they are taking a proactive approach to eliminating discrimination, promoting equality and fostering good relations.

Some of the positive recommendations in the report are that other regulators, as well as the EHRC, should be involved in enforcing compliance and that further, accessible, sector-specific guidance should be produced. We wholeheartedly back these suggestions. The emphasis needs to be on supporting and guiding organisations to improve their compliance with equality legislation and improving their service for everybody, not on attacking the legislation. Equality is not the enemy, but the driver, of progress. We need those in charge to embrace it.

Further critiques of the review can be found here, here and here and a report of the research carried out by NatCen, which found that people believe that the PSED is working well can be found here

Sarah Soyei: Director, EqualiTeach: sarah@equaliteach.co.uk

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