It’s better to ‘gold-plate’ equality law than protect institutional prejudice

(from The Guardian 16.09.13)

“Gold-plating” is the latest government term used to disparage efforts to achieve equality by public sector bodies. But hang on, isn’t a gold standard something good, a form of best practice to which we should aspire? Clearly not, according to the government’s response to the review, published last Friday, of the public sector equality duty (PSED) – which requires all public authorities to take account of how their policies and practices might have an adverse impact on disadvantaged groups protected by equality legislation.

To the relief of many, the review did not recommend either a repeal or significant weakening of the PSED – primarily because the review panel had to conclude that it’s too early to say how well the PSED is operating in practice, since it had only been in place for a year when the review began. This is precisely the point that many of us made when the government announced its intentions. We could have saved the taxpayer a fortune.

What is more worrying in the review is the consistent undermining of equality best practice as burdensome, tending towards “over-compliance” and “gold-plating”. According to the equalities minister, Maria Miller, something must be done to put an end to the “gold-plating” of equality activity by some public authorities. The government’s attitude towards equality law was made plain when it announced a review, under its “red tape challenge”, of the PSED.

It is therefore rather surprising that one of the main complaints of the PSED review team is that the business community displayed very little interest in contributing to it. So the PSED is clearly not considered particularly burdensome by busy business leaders. After all, only politicians could dream up a costly, time-consuming bureaucratic exercise to cut costs and eradicate red tape.

That isn’t to say there is no room for improvement in the legislation. Many equality and diversity practitioners are critical of a “tick-box” approach that emphasises compliance, form-filling and collecting data for its own sake. But rather than attacking the legislation itself, they want to see better monitoring and enforcement of the duty to ensure that it really is making a difference for those whom it is intended to benefit.

It is worth remembering the origins of the public sector equality duty – it developed from the race equality duty, introduced in 2000 to address the institutional racism identified in the Metropolitan police’s investigation into Stephen Lawrence’s murder. The proactive duty on public authorities was intended to change racist practices and cultures (intentional or not) that allowed criminals to get away with murder.

We have since been made aware of extensive historical and ongoing sexual abuse in public authorities, not to mention stubborn gender pay discrimination and age and disability-related neglect. Never more than now has equality in public services been under the microscope. It could be argued that public sector executives who find the PSED burdensome do so because of the extent of discrimination in the organisations they lead but they must surely realise that the real costs of equality result from trying to repair decades of institutional discrimination.

Yet, in spite of the language and tone in the review, much of the accompanying evidence is positive about the effects of the duty, and we have seen many examples in our own research. The Olympic park construction project saw increased numbers of women and ethnic minority workers – groups typically underrepresented in the industry – because of targets and action plans set for private contractors by the Olympic Delivery Authority, a public body subject to the PSED. In this case, the public and private sectors working together were happy to “go for gold” in achieving fairer outcomes for employees, as well as on the track.

In addition, there are numerous examples where the PSED has been used to challenge unfair and discriminatory budget cuts. As with the Metropolitan police, such change can only occur when there is a proactive legislative framework in place supported by political commitment and public sector leadership that does not hide behind the costly and time-wasting rhetoric of red tape, burdens and over-compliance. Equality is too important. Let’s stop undermining efforts to advance equality and social justice and go for gold.

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