The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced a guide for public sector decision-makers, setting out what is expected of them and others to comply with equality duties when they implement savings after the Comprehensive Spending Review.
It warned that the duties "should remain a top priority, even in times of economic difficulty", adding that failure to meet the relevant duties may result in authorities being exposed to "costly, time-consuming and reputation-damaging legal challenges".
The Commission said it had designed the guide – which is aimed at government departments and public authorities at both national and local level – to help “put fairness and transparency at the heart of the difficult financial decisions ahead”.
The EHRC explained that the legislation required government departments and local authorities to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination and promote equality with regard to race, disability and gender as well as promote good relations, in particular to tackle prejudice and promote understanding.
It added that when this requirement is applied in practice, “it means that they must assess the equality impact of proposed changes to policies, procedures or practices, such as decisions which result from a desire to make savings”.
This could include decisions such as reorganisations and relocations, redundancies and service reductions programmes.
The guidance points out that the law:
- does not prevent government officials from making difficult decisions
- does not stop them from making decisions that may affect one group more than another, and
- simply requires that such decisions are made in a fair, transparent and accountable way, considering the needs and the rights of different members of the community.
It adds that where decisions are found to have a disproportionate impact on a particular group, authorities must consider what actions can be taken to avoid or mitigate the unfair impact.
Meeting the legal obligation to show “due regard” does not necessarily need to take the form of one document called an 'Equality Impact Assessment' (EIA), the guidance says, although the Commission recommends this as good practice.
“If an EIA is not adopted, there must be an alternative form of analysis which systematically assesses any adverse impact of change in policy, procedure or practice,” the Commission said.
The EHRC argued that the process is a positive opportunity for officials to ensure they take fair decisions in an open and transparent way which will stand up to external scrutiny.
The guidance recommends that decision-makers not only take into account legal obligations under equality legislation, but also those under the Human Rights Act 1998. It also says they should “look ahead to the upcoming changes as a result of the Equality Act 2010 that will extend the same protections to age, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity and religion and belief.”
The Commission added that the guidance should also be helpful to voluntary and community groups, trade unions and individuals in helping them hold decision-makers to account.
EHRC chief executive Helen Hughes said: “As we approach the Comprehensive Spending Review, we know all public bodies will be making difficult decisions. This legislation is not designed to prevent reductions in public expenditure.
“Its role, and the Commission's role as a regulator tasked with monitoring and enforcing the legislation, is to ensure that fairness and transparency are at the heart of decisions. And when decisions do have a disproportionate impact, policy makers think carefully about what they can do to mitigate it. Over the coming months, the Commission will be working hard to ensure those making the tough calls have the information and resources they need to do just that."
A copy of the guidance can be downloaded here.
Further reading: Be careful when you cut.