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Ask the experts – Equality Act

Sunday September 26th, 2010

By Morven MacNeil, GO Features Editor

GO Features Editor Morven MacNeil answers your queries on the new Equality Act.

What is the Equality Act?

On 8 April 2010 the Equality Act received Royal Assent after completing its parliamentary process. The Act contains a series of measures for tackling inequalities, simplifying legislation and extending protection to a wide range of groups that face discrimination. Most of the Act has already come into force.

The Equality Act 2010 is intended to provide a new cross-cutting legislative framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all; to update, simplify and strengthen the previous legislation; and to deliver a simple, modern and accessible framework of discrimination law which protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society.

The existing equality duty on the public sector applies to public bodies as purchasers of goods and services, requiring them to tackle discrimination and promote race, disability and gender equality through their procurement functions. Some public bodies have complied with the duty by, for example, asking potential contractors what percentage of their staff are from ethnic minority communities.

The new equality duty will clarify and strengthen the existing requirements and give a greater focus on increasing transparency. The Government has looked at how to help public bodies comply with the duty more effectively, through legislative and non-legislative mechanisms, and encourage greater transparency among their private sector contractors.

How does it impact upon procurement?

The Equality Act contains a specific measure on procurement, making provision ‘to enable duties to be imposed in relation to the exercise of public procurement functions’. The accompanying guide, Framework for a Fairer Future: The Equality Bill, states that the Act ‘makes it clear public bodies can use procurement to drive equality’. It also ‘enables ministers to set out how public bodies should go about doing so’.

The Act establishes a new Single Equality Duty on public authorities, consolidating the three existing public duties on race, disability and gender. Additionally, it extends coverage to age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, pregnancy and maternity, and gender reassignment.

The new duty, like the three duties before it, requires public authorities to ‘have due regard’ to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations when exercising their functions. The accompanying guide explains that the duty will require public bodies ‘to consider the needs of diverse groups in the community when designing and delivering public services’. It also applies to private bodies exercising public functions.

The Act’s impact assessment explains that the decision to include procurement was evidence-based. This showed that government intervention is necessary to ‘encourage’ and ‘enable’ public authorities to use their procurement activities to further equality objectives. The Act seeks to effect a cultural shift in how public authorities pursue equality objectives through their procurement activities. It also notes that ‘a common approach to equality in public procurement could reduce burdens on business applying for public sector contracts’ and ‘make it easier for small and medium-sized businesses to compete’.

Has there been any equality research on procurement?

Local Government Improvement and Development (formerly the IDeA) has produced an equality guidance on procurement. This resource provides practical support on equalities and procurement for local government. It aims to clarify what needs to be done and to assist local authorities in meeting their legal and other requirements more efficiently by sharing relevant documents and approaches.

A survey of equalities and procurement practitioners in local government has also been published by LG Improvement and Development, the Society of Procurement Officers in Local Government (SOPO) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It found that there was a demand for guidance which was authoritative but also accessible and practical. It was suggested that examples of how authorities and services had incorporated equalities considerations into their procurement decisions and processes should be included.

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