The Equality Duties

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2008 Local Government Service Group Conference
12 June 2008

Conference recognises that the Public Sector Equality Duties are a real opportunity for progress on equality in local government and welcomes the recent UNISON guidance on using the equality duties and the development of UNISON’s own equality scheme.

The EOC (now EHRC) Guidance code lists key employment issues that should be considered by public authorities when deciding their priorities for action. They include recruitment; occupational segregation; flexible working; part-time working; parental and maternity leave; harassment and sexual harassment; transgender rights; grievance and disciplinary procedures; redundancy and retirement.

Many employers claim to be equal opportunity employers but often there is a wide gap between what exists on paper and how it is implemented. Local government branches can make a difference through collective bargaining on the equality duties to ensure authorities are paying due regard to equality in everything they do including all policies and procedures. Existing practices and changes to employment and service delivery must be assessed to examine their impact – giving branches an opportunity to negotiate and organise for equality. For example if a council decides to privatise a service it must do an impact assessment to ensure the proposal does not have a disproportionate impact on women / disabled / black workers.

Conference notes that the first anniversary of the introduction of the Gender Equality Duty (GED) has now passed and believes that few local government employers have taken on board the spirit of the duty, let alone the word. The duty was intended to provide a real opportunity for progress in equality between women and men, but there are major gaps, particularly as the duty does not apply to the private sector, leaving the public sector at a competitive disadvantage.

Conference notes the Government’s commitment to introduce a Single Equality Act in this Parliament and the Green Paper on their proposals for a Bill informed by the Discrimination Law Review. Conference supports the need for fair, comprehensive and transparent legislation across all discrimination grounds. However, whilst the Green Paper proposes extending the equality duties to cover sexual orientation, religion/belief and age, the proposals represent a serious step backwards by watering down the duties so they will have minimal effect, rendering them less effective and more difficult to enforce. Authorities are to be allowed to fix their own priorities which will reduce momentum and commitment to equalities and remove the baseline standard which compliance can be measured against.

In local government the fact that the Equality Standard was a Best Value Performance Indicator was an important lever for English branches in placing equality on the agenda with employers. The Standard is now no longer a nationally specified target for local government employers and more importantly neither is the implementation of the equality duties.

Conference is concerned that these changes may be read by some local authorities as a signal to retreat from equality improvement and believes it is vital that the equality duties are not diluted but strengthened and used vigorously to deliver the right outcomes for our members in local government. Employers must be pushed to fully implement the Public Sector Duties.

However, conference is disappointed to note that there is little evidence that local government employers are actually addressing these issues, and few examples of employers carrying out any meaningful consultation with UNISON branches. Gender impact assessments on new and existing policies do not appear to be happening, despite the requirement that these should be undertaken.

The Service Group has urged English branches to seek the adoption of the Equalities Duties as a specific local improvement target through local area agreements. Inclusion of the Duties in the regulatory framework is essential to ensure a council’s action or inaction affects their performance assessment. In Scotland equality remains central to the Best Value regime under statute and ministerial guidance.

Increasingly local authorities are working through partnership arrangements in the delivery of services. In its response to the Discrimination Law Review UNISON called for the consideration of equality to be mandatory in all procurement activities. Without a specific equality requirement in terms of procurement, the current uncertainty over procurement and equality objectives will continue.

Conference calls on the Service Group Executive to:

1)Draw up equality action plans with Regional Local Government Committees and branches using the UNISON guidance and training on how the duties can be used in recruitment and organising

2)Encourage all branches to insist on consultation and involvement in the development of equality schemes with their employers

3)Publicise and raise awareness of the guidance materials and new training course for UNISON activists on the three public sector equality duties and to encourage branches to participate in that training

4)Ensure the duties are fully implemented by local government employers and that unions are consulted on equality plans and that these address the 13 key employment priorities identified in the EOC(EHRC) guidance

5) Campaign with the NEC, National Self Organised Groups and Labour Link for a strong single equality duty covering both the public and private sector, mandatory consideration of equality in procurement activities and for the EHRC to have the resources it needs to play an effective enforcement role and to take action against those who persistently fail to comply with the duties