Government accused of dismantling equity laws

Fawcett Society report says coalition has been reversing and dismantling equality laws

Equality campaigners have accused the government of a systematic assault on measures designed to protect women and minorities, amid fears that a key requirement to end discrimination is to be scrapped.

In a report out this week, the Fawcett Society accuses the coalition government of "weakening the legal and institutional measures concerned with equality".

The report is timed to coincide with the review of a central plank of equalities legislation – the public sector equality duty (PSED) – expected in the coming weeks.

Ceri Goddard, the society's chief executive, said: "Over the past 40 years we have seen progress in equality laws, albeit quite slow. At the end of two years of this coalition government we have seen a reversal and dismantling of these laws."

A recommendation to remove the equality duty would take the government's attack to a whole new level, said Goddard. "[It] would be a systematic dismantling of the state's role in tackling inequality."

Her views echo those of Doreen Lawrence, the mother of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, who criticised the government for turning its back on measures introduced to ensure equality after the Macpherson inquiry into his death.

She said: "I think about what it was like before the inquiry and what we were going through – and what people on the street were going through – the inequality, within institutions and within their work. If we don't make a stand we will go back to those days and I don't think we should."

In May the home secretary, Theresa May, announced a review of the PSED, the mechanism by which government policies are assessed to ascertain the impact they will have on women, minorities and disadvantaged groups.

The mechanism has been in place only since April 2011, having been introduced under the Equality Act 2010, and supporters were shocked when it was included in the government's "red tape challenge", a review of unnecessary bureaucracy launched two years ago.

"Where there may have been a question mark over the government's attitude [to equality], if they decide to scrap this it will be a clear signal," said Goddard.

"This goes to the heart of the political debate in this country over whether the government has to give regard to everybody in society and not just a few."

The PSED, which replaced separate duties regarding women, minorities, disabled groups and others, means that public bodies have to consider all individuals when carrying out their day-to-day work.

In announcing its decision to include it as part of the review, the government said it wanted to ascertain the costs and benefits of the PSED and what changes, if any, would "ensure better equality outcomes".

The make-up of the steering group put in charge of reviewing the PSED has already raised eyebrows among equality campaigners as it consists of former Tory politicians, two Lib Dems and one crossbench peer. A senior police officer and some civil servants also attend but it is unclear what their status is.

As Conservative MPs have been the biggest supporters of the red tape challenge and are more likely to consider state obligations to be overly onerous bureaucracy, campaigners fear the review is biased towards scrapping the duty.

Goddard said: "This whole process seems dubious and has certainly not been transparent."

The Fawcett Society's report, Red Tape, Red Lines, lists the actions taken by the government since coming to power in 2010 that it considers have already undermined the infrastructure built up to reduce inequality.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission's annual budget has been slashed from £70m when it started in 2007 to £17m, while one of the first outfits to be disbanded in the government's bonfire of the quangos soon after the coalition came to power was the Women's National Commission.

At the same time, the special adviser appointed to assess government policies on women has recently added education and childcare to her role to the chagrin of the sector.

• The headline to this article was amended on 15 July 2013.


Jane Martinson, women's editor

The GuardianTramp

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