MDPAG Evidence to the Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability, House of Lords
1. Has the Equality Act 2010 achieved the aim of strengthening and harmonising disability discrimination law? What has been the effect of disability now being one of nine protected characteristics?
1.1 The Equality Act has weakened some of the anti-discrimination law relating to disability. In particular, the Public Sector Equality Duty does not include the requirement for public bodies to consult disabled people and to produce Disability Action Plans as was in the Disability Discrimination Act. Public bodies no longer consult disabled people on a regular basis and although they are required to set objectives, this is not adhered to and not monitored. They are not clear on what evidence to collect and publish so do very little. The previous Disability Action Plan produced before the Equality Act came into force was completely abandoned and the lack of enforcement for any of the requirements of the Equality Act with the emphasis on individuals taking cases, has led to public bodies generally ignoring the requirements.
1.2 There is no attempt or understanding in public sector bodies of how to incorporate or harmonise one or more protected characteristics. One example in Manchester, where the issues, standards and best practice relating to access for disabled people have been ignored is in Manchester City Council’s management of the Age Friendly initiative. Although many older people face access barriers because of impairments, City Council offers regularly ignore the best practice of disabled people’s experience and guidance for example, producing guides in inaccessible formats and promoting projects which ignore the City Council’s own policy in their “Design for Access 2” manual. Although there is a level of co-operation with disabled people, mainly as a result of MDPAG getting involved in Age Friendly Manchester’s activities, the general direction of work with older people ignores best practice and does not effectively “foster good relations between different groups”, one of the general duties under the Equality Act.
1.3 In relation to the Built Environment, Manchester City Council has not consulted effectively with disabled people’s organisations and ignored the comments of disabled people in relation to new developments in the Town Hall Complex, in particular, in the construction of the Link Building between the Library and the Town Hall Extension and Lloyd Street between the Town Hall and the Town Hall Extension. This has been documented in the evidence given and the report of the Planning Inspector relating to the Public Inquiry over the stopping up of Library Walk which took place during September – November 2014.
1.4. The increasing use of shared space which seriously discriminates against many disabled people who are now unable to safely access some public spaces, well publicised by Lord Holmes, has been difficult to challenge under the provisions of the Equality Act and there are examples in Manchester and Poynton, which has received plaudits from some sectors of the built environment profession.
1.5 It is helpful that other protected characteristics are included in the Equality Act as many disabled people have multiple identities and can be discriminated against because of more than one characteristic. However, public bodies and service provider still do not appreciate this by, for example, placing baby changing tables too high for disabled parents to use.
1.6 The Equality Act has not strengthened disability discrimination law in many areas, when, for example, there needs to be an additional Accessible Sports Grounds bill, currently being debated and supported across all parties, in the House of Lords.
2. Are there gaps in the law on disability and equality not covered by the Equality Act 2010 or other legislation?
2.1 Voluntary workers are not covered under the Equality Act
2.2 People on work experience are not comprehensively covered, including the right to reasonable adjustments, such as the installation of a necessary lift. It is also not clear that disabled people trying to work through agencies or on zero hours contracts are properly covered.
2.3 Government has been allowed to stop requiring public authorities to use Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs). This has had a major effect on allowing policies and procedures to be implemented or continued, which continue to discriminate against disabled people and others covered by the Equality Act both at local and national levels. However, even where EIAs were used, there was a lack of understanding of the range of barriers experienced by disabled people with a wide range of impairments.
2.4 Similarly, the government has limited the use of Design and Access Statements at the planning stage of applications and changed Access Statements to Access Strategies in Building Regulations, instead of strengthening them and ensuring that new buildings and environments anticipate the needs of a wide range of disabled people, including many older people, not just wheelchair users. The original Circular 01/06 “Changes to the Development Control System” encouraged the involvement of disabled people’s organisations but this now happens rarely. It has led to many new and refurbished public and private buildings with barriers for disabled people, including new award winning buildings such as the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, and the new Central Library in Manchester.
3. Are the reasonable adjustment duties known and understood by disabled people, employers, service providers and others who have duties under them? How does this apply in the specific cases of public transport, taxis, education and access to sports grounds?
3.1 Most staff in public bodies and employed by service providers do not understood the full scope of reasonable adjustments, particularly relationship to the continuing and anticipatory duties, and are unaware of the many barriers experienced by people with sensory impairments, learning difficulties, mental and other health issues, neuro-diverse people and people with multiple impairments, as well as people with a wide range of mobility impairments.
3.2 There is a widespread lack of knowledge in most organisations about making information accessible and they are unaware of the use of any clear print guidelines, (available from MDPAG and circulated regularly) with many poor examples regularly available from the public sector including local authorities. A recent example of poor design is “An alternative Age-Friendly Handbook (for the socially engaged urban practitioner)”, 2014, produced in partnership with Age UK, RIBA, the University of Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing (MICRA) and Age-friendly Manchester and the 2014 UK Urban Ageing Consortium, which is intended for designers, but not useable for those with a visual impairment, even in a large print version. Many websites, particularly in the private sector, are inaccessible and do not comply with national standards (BS 8878:2010) or international standards (Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI)).
3.3 MDPAG gets many complaints about the behaviour of bus drivers and there are still issues in the design of transport environments, including the introduction of cycle routes behind bus stops, without sufficiently safe crossing points for visually impaired and other disabled people. Examples also include discrimination by some taxi drivers, particularly in refusing to visit addresses where they know there are wheelchair users or refusing to use their ramps or seat belts designed for wheelchair users. The policies, procedures and design of public transport often discriminate against disabled people who use scooters or larger wheelchairs, including many buses, trains and trams. Door to door transport which many disabled people rely on is often underfunded, unreliable and with limited range.
3.4 There are no standards or provision for safe crossing points on streets with light rail transport, for example, Metrolink in Greater Manchester, leading to some public areas, such as Piccadilly Gardens, being unsafe and inaccessible for visually impaired people and other disabled people.
3.5 The BBC reported on a government sponsored survey in December 2014 identifying many shops and restaurants continuing to be inaccessible for wheelchair users. This survey should also have considered other barriers which exclude assistance dogs, such as narrow aisles and no room between or under tables, lack of information for sensory impaired people, poor lighting and acoustics and inappropriate seating amongst other access barriers. The lack of enforcement and the difficulty faced by individual disabled people in making complaints and taking legal action maintains a climate of exclusion. Events such as the Manchester Food and Drink Festival continue to give awards to venues which exclude disabled people, even where they would never consider excluding other people with protected characteristics.
3.6 Wayfinding and signage is a continuing problem for many disabled people as organisations and designers often have little understanding of communication issues and often do not consider wayfinding at an early stage of a proposal. This is a particular problem for people with learning difficulties, people with multiple impairments, including some stroke survivors and others who require assistance with orientation.
4. Should the law be more explicit on what constitutes a reasonable adjustment? If so, in what way?
4.1 There should be more publicity and information around reasonable adjustments, which includes information about the barriers faced by a wide range of disabled people. More publicity for the outcome of successful cases would also help to change attitudes towards what is acceptable and unacceptable.
4.2 There should also be a requirement to carry out reasonable adjustments and not just settle out of court when legal action is taken.
4.3 Existing standards are currently inconsistent and although useful, do not cover all the barriers faced by disabled people, so that it would be difficult to limit the definition of discrimination only to the scope of existing national and local standards. However, minimum, not maximum, requirements for reasonable adjustments should incorporate recognised standards such as BS8300 and elements of other national standards and guidance.
5. How effective has the public sector equality duty been in practice? How do you assess its contribution to the aims of the Equality Act 2010?
5.1 It is not as effective as were provisions under the Disability Discrimination Act. MDPAG gave a presentation given to the EHRC Disability Committee on the PSED and the Built Environment in July 2015 and has additional examples and evidence. The PSED, in our view, is supported in principle but the impact on reducing discrimination is very limited.
6. What has been the impact of the different approaches in England, Wales and Scotland to the specific duties designed to support the general public sector equality duty? Have the specific duties supported implementation for disabled people?
6.1 The specific duties are not well understood and not adhered to. In particular, there is no specific requirement for local authorities to require each department to set equality objectives e.g. planning, licensing, housing, corporate services, markets, health, sports, leisure and arts and consultations. As there is no understanding or enforcement of the Equality Act overall, there is little incentive to collect appropriate information on a public body’s compliance with the Act and then to publish it. Cuts to public sector services and organisations have also affected any commitment to spend funds on collecting and publishing relevant information.
7. Does the division of responsibilities between Ministers and government departments affect the effective implementation of the Equality Act 2010 in respect of disability?
7.1 Different government departments appear to have varied responses to compliance with the Equality Act. Most documents on government websites are no longer available in alternative formats and are usually provided only in PDF, and not Word, RTF or other formats. Where requests are made for consultation documents to be made available in alternative formats, the documents generally arrive too late for individuals or organisations to participate in the consultation. Government services are increasingly delivered by other private sector organisations, but the original contract does not appear to require these services to be accessible. This would seem to be in contravention with the public sector equality duties. Efforts to get relevant information from government departments, related to disability, has led MDPAG to have difficulties with one government department, DCLG, which has not responded effectively to requests for information or clarification of government legislation and guidance. This continues to be the situation, even after requests from a local MP.
7.2 Sometimes legislation from different government departments appears to conflict with each other and with the provisions of the Equality Act, particularly in the work of the DCLG and the DWP. For example, effects of changes in government policy in relation to disabled people, which has increased discrimination, exclusion and isolation and reduced services are contradicted by Ministerial statements supporting the need for additional services and reasonable adjustments to be made for older people.
8. How effective has the Equality and Human Rights Commission been in exercising its regulation and enforcement powers, and what contribution has this made to the impact of the Equality Act 2010 on people with disabilities?
8.1 Since losing staff and having its budget and focus reduced, the EHRC has been mostly ineffective in regulating and enforcing the Equality Act, in comparison with what they were able to do in the past, particularly in taking on and publicising major investigations in some sectors.
8.2 Please note that in the question, the social model of disability does not support the use of the term “people with disabilities” as disabled people may or may not have impairments, but do not have disabilities, as they are disabled by the barriers in society. For example, neuro-diverse people and some deaf people do not recognise that they have impairments but are regularly disabled by a wide range of social, financial, communication, physical, sensory and attitudinal barriers.
9. Could other regulatory bodies with a role in the effective implementation of the Equality Act 2010, such as inspectorates and ombudsmen, play a more significant part?
9.1 This would be very helpful if it was not costly to individuals and if the inspectors and ombudsmen followed the guidance and codes of practice developed by the EHRC, understood the wide range of barriers and were able to demonstrate practical improvements in reducing discrimination and promoting reasonable adjustments.
10. Are the current enforcement mechanisms available to private individuals (through Employment Tribunals, County Courts and, in Scotland, Sheriff Courts) accessible and effective for people with disabilities, employers and providers of goods, facilities and services?
10.1 It is extremely difficult, costly and stressful for individuals to take legal action or even to make a complaint. Many people avoid making complaints, for example, about inaccessible football stadiums and football club ticketing procedures, as they are emotionally engaged with the sport and its social benefits and are concerned that they may be excluded if they take legal action. Similarly, most disabled people do not make complaints about healthcare services, as there are examples of people being excluded from GP practices and other health services if they complain and are sometimes labelled as troublemakers.
10.2 Clear and simple advice and guidelines, even from the EHRC, and advice services with knowledge of equality legislation, are not widely available, particularly as most free legal and services have lost their funding in recent years.
10.3 Many people in work have used trade union representatives to support them at tribunals and courts, but in a large number of situations, disabled people are not in full-time or part-time work with trade union representatives or are unaware that that they can join a trade union, so do not have access to this source of advice and guidance.
10.4 Please note the inappropriate use of the term “people with disabilities” in this question, which does not fit with the social model of disability.
11. Are there other legislative or non-legislative measures that would improve implementation of the Equality Act 2010 in respect of disability?
11.1 Alongside better enforcement, additions and changes to the Equality Act noted above, if disabled people’s access groups were given national recognition and support, they would be helpful in giving a voice to the experience and knowledge of disabled people and help to improve understanding of the Equality Act in local communities and organisations, and promote reasonable adjustments in relation to the built environment, transport, information and services.
11.2 An important addition to the legislation would be to enable groups, not just individuals, to take legal action against service providers and public bodies which are in breach of recognised national standards and guidance, and for groups to act as advocates for individuals who are not confident in making complaints or taking cases to courts on their own. This approach would make monitoring and regulating commitment to the Equality Act more available and widespread, and focus the attention of organisations on the need to conform to recognised national guidance and standards as a minimum requirement. This should not take the place of existing rights for individuals to take cases to court, where service providers have not anticipated their needs and not made reasonable adjustments, but would be an additional way for groups and communities to engage with organisations and encourage best practice, while helping to provide a more accessible community for everyone.
Flick Harris, Chair,
on behalf of Manchester Disabled People’s Access Group (MDPAG)
3rd September 2015