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Why Didn't the Equality Act 2010 Work?

30/03/2016 12:52

Last week, the House of Lords Select Committee published their report. In it lies their findings from a call for evidence last year, and it is a masterpiece. Never before have I seen so many disability rights issues analysed in such detail. The picture it paints is not a pretty one, it is a warts and all portrait of the everyday epic fails that those of us with a disability know oh so well.

One of the main problems underlying the underperformance of the Equality Act 2010 is the lack of a simple answer to "Who's in charge of making sure this works?"

Nicky Morgan MP explained that: "At the Government Equalities Office, we give advice to departments about the... Equality Act." Meanwhile, Pat Russell, the Head of the Office for Disability Issues stated that their purpose was to: "develop and monitor the cross-government disability strategy; co-ordinate the representation of UK interests [in the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities]; promote engagement with disabled people as part of routine policy and programme development and delivery; and promote actions and activities that remove the barriers that disabled people face." Minister for Disabled People, Justin Tomlinson MP, is responsible for cross-government disability issues and strategy, disability benefits, mental health matters, carers and Access to Work. Everybody got that? Good. Now could someone please explain it to me?

Then there's the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who's duties are to: "Promote understanding of the importance of and encourage good practice in relation to equality and diversity; promote equality of opportunity; promote awareness and understanding of rights under the Equality Act; enforce the Equality Act; and work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination and unlawful harassment."

Wait a second, the EHRC have a duty to "enforce the Equality Act". Brilliant, we can say it's their fault. Except that it isn't. They have a pretty good record on taking disability discrimination cases to court, and their powers are limited by their available funds. "The budget of the EHRC has dropped by 75% since 2010, first as a result of the 2010 comprehensive spending review, then following a comprehensive budget review in 2012."

So it's the Chancellor's fault? Huzzah! Tempting though it is to hitch a lift on that bandwagon, the Chancellor is not the sole reason the Equality Act 2010 did not deliver on its expectations. Sure, the extra funding might have helped, but there are plenty of big businesses with scores of lawyers working for them who have chosen to ignore their responsibilities under the Act, acting illegally by choice.

Some of the largest high street names still don't even have step-free access to all their premises. I'm not talking about the Grade 1 listed architectural stunners which may be unadaptable, but the late 20th century eyesores that shamelessly flout the law. So it's all their fault.

Well, no. Disabled people have and indeed exercise the right to sue these businesses, and though Legal Aid was cut for employment cases, it is still available for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. We have the ability to haul these businesses in front of a judge and make them change their ways, but largely we don't. Are we to blame? Did we just look at the world around us and go 'meh, it'll do'?

No. Legal proceedings can be time consuming, and difficult to navigate without expert help. Douglas Johnson, from the Law Centres network, said: "There are precious few firms of solicitors in the country that will go anywhere near a discrimination case. That is why the [Equality] Act is not being enforced. It is simply not cost effective for most firms of solicitors to take that risk from a business sense." So it's the fault of lawyers is it?

Well, no, of course not. There are some very talented lawyers out there, breaking new ground on the battlefield of justice on our behalf. Some of them even do this for free.

The truth of the matter is that I really don't care. I just don't care who is ultimately to blame; childish finger-pointing won't resolve these issues or any other. The question I would like to ask and answer is: Who is going to sort out this mess? The answer is simply: All of the above.

The House of Lords report includes a good number of pretty sensible looking recommendations, and hopefully the media will hold to account those who do need heed those recommendations.

The evidence received by the Committee has been published in full and the Contents page of the 1,271 pages of evidence reads like a who's who of the disability rights movement. The rest of it reads like a charge sheet, breaches of the law from all across the country laid out in neat type for public scrutiny. I have not yet made my way through all 1,271 pages, but I think it is a good starting point for the next 20 years of the disability rights movement. It can be used as a historical record to measure progress against, a source to refer back to and say "How much have things changed since 2016?"

The Equality Act 2010 did not deliver on the promise of equality for disabled people. The saga continues...

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