Making rights worth having: the report of the Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability

 

 

 

‘We recommend restoring the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s power to arrange the provision of conciliation services for non-employment discrimination claims. The service specification should provide for a range of delivery methods to ensure it is accessible, including provision of face-to-face conciliation, and the service should take direct referrals from the Equality Advisory and Support Service or its replacement.’

Equality Act

Last month the House of Lords Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability reported on its inquiry into the Act and concluded that government inaction is failing disabled people. The inquiry, which started in June 2015, received 144 responses to its Call for Evidence and heard oral evidence from 53 witnesses. The published report sets out the committee’s conclusions on a range of issues including the Public Sector Equality Duty, reasonable adjustments, access to services in transport, housing, and leisure facilities, and enforcement and access to justice. It highlights the barriers to challenging disability discrimination in terms of cuts to legal aid, court and tribunal fees, and procedural changes and notes that rights without enforcement are meaningless: ‘Rights which are unenforceable are not worth having.’

It was particularly heartening to see the Committee’s criticism of the Coalition Government’s weakening of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and its abolition of the EHRC’s power to arrange independent mediation (conciliation) for non-employment cases. I worked as an independent mediator with the original Disability Conciliation Service, set up by the Disability Rights Commission, and its successor, the Equalities Mediation Service. Over the years, from 2001 to 2013, we handled many hundreds of claims alleging disability discrimination in the provision of goods and services.

This provision, the report states, was one of the casualties of the Red Tape Challenge, and it was abolished, with other measures in the Act, because it was considered to place unnecessary or disproportionate burdens on business. The report suggests that the Government should have given the same consideration to measures placing an unnecessary or disproportionate burden on disabled people, and Baroness Deech, chair of the Committee, said: ‘Intended to reduce the regulatory burden on business, the reality has been an increase in the burden on disabled people.’

It’s useful to be reminded of the background of the mediation provision and its demise. From the report:

‘447. The Disability Rights Commission developed a conciliation service to which any complaint arising out of an alleged failure to provide goods or services in a non-discriminatory way under the DDA could be referred for resolution. When the Disability Rights Commission was replaced by the EHRC, section 27 of the Equality Act 2006 gave the EHRC the power to provide conciliation services.

448. In March 2011 the Coalition Government, as part of its examination of public bodies, issued a Consultation Paper putting forward a number of suggestions for changes to the role and functions of the EHRC. One of the questions asked was: “Do you think the Government should repeal the EHRC’s power to make provision for conciliation services, as part of the process of focussing the EHRC on its core functions?” Of the 293 responses received, 61 agreed, 206 disagreed and 26 were not sure. Despite this the Government concluded:

“We have now decided to repeal the EHRC’s power to make arrangements for the provision of conciliation in non-workplace disputes. We do not believe that arranging conciliation services for individual cases fits with the EHRC’s strategic role, or that it is necessary in light of the range of good quality, accessible and effective mediation provision already available throughout England and Wales and Scotland.”660

Accordingly section 27 of the Equality Act 2006 was repealed by section 64(1)(b) of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 with effect from 25 June 2013.

449.The EHRC wrote: “The removal (which we opposed) of our statutory power to arrange the provision of conciliation services for non-employment cases is a particular concern for disabled people given that the majority of non-employment discrimination claims are disability cases.”661 That concern was shared by the Discrimination Law Association, who told us in written evidence: “DLA members advising and supporting disabled people in non-employment discrimination claims have called for re-instatement of the EHRC power to establish a conciliation service.”662 Most forcefully Nick O’Brien, when asked which two recommendations he would like to see this Committee make, said: “The Disability Rights Commission had a power to arrange for a conciliation service in respect of goods, facilities and services disputes. The need for that, or something similar, has become more acute now that the prospect of taking cases to court—civil cases in the county courts and even in tribunals—is so significantly reduced.”663

The committee also considered whether a new disability ombud scheme should be created. Evidence to the committee noted the plethora of existing ombudsman schemes: As our colleague Nick O’Brien stated, ‘the landscape is already quite cluttered … The challenge is to make sure that the existing ombudsmen more selfconsciously use the powers they already have to embed equality and human rights in what they do.’ The committee was persuaded that yet another ombudsman is not needed and that, instead, the mandates of other ombudsmen should be widened explicitly to cover disability issues.

‘461. We recommend that the Government amend the mandates of those regulators, inspectorates and ombudsmen that deal with services most often accessed by disabled people to make the securing of compliance with the Equality Act 2010 a specific statutory duty.

462. We recommend that any new relevant public sector ombudsman be given an explicit remit to secure compliance with the Equality Act 2010 in the services for which it is responsible.’

Another very useful recommendation relates to data on non-employment discrimination claims. It has been impossible to identify the number of such claims made in county courts because these are not specified. The report recommends:’that HM Courts and Tribunals Service be required to collect from all county courts and from the Employment Appeal Tribunal, and to make publicly available, data relating to disability discrimination claims separately from other claims, as they do in employment tribunals.’

The report overall makes fascinating reading. I look forward to seeing how the Committee’s recommendations are taken forward.


Human rights and discrimination issues in complaints: what is the ombuds’ role?

Earlier this month the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) published guidance on handling complaints about discrimination. The guidance follows a number of critical reports by the IPCC, which found significant failings in the way police forces carried out such investigations and engaged with complainants. It raises an interesting question: To what extent do ombuds and other complaint handlers hold bodies they investigate to account for discriminatory behavior and decision-making?

Fairness is a key concept of the ombuds approach: both fairness of decision-making and fairness of the processes used to handle citizen-consumer ocmplaints. Yet ombuds schemes and other complaint handling bodies in the UK have generally been reluctant to tread into the territory of naming discrimination and human rights breaches in findings on complaints. Part of the reluctance is the concern that any determination of a breach of equalities and human rights legislation must be made by a court. Breaches of human rights can, however, inform findings of maladministration, but as noted by Buck et al in The Ombudsman Enterprise, this innovative use of the law has its dangers, not least the risk of judicial review.

Promoting and protecting human rights is the primary function of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), some of whom also have complaint handling roles. A current study of the role of NHRIs in dealing with human rights complaints is exploring how that complaint-handling role fits with the wider strategic function, and to what extent informal processes such as mediation are being used for these. (We were interested to note that the researchers are finding, as we did, that certain ADR and informal processes are ‘amorphous and difficult to isolate’ and that shared meanings and forms of, for example, mediation appear not to exist.) In some countries, the NHRI is also an ombud, but in the UK ombuds are separate organisations; the Council of Europe uses the term ‘national human rights structures’ to refer to those commissions, ombuds and police complaints mechanisms that have a human rights mandate but are not the accredited NHRI.

Last year the Equalities and Human Rights Commission published a guide to human rights in action. The section of the report on regulators, Inspectorates and ombuds (RIOs) includes several case studies, from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and the IPCC, illustrating the use of the human rights framework in complaints handling and investigation.

Among those ombuds who have been proactive in identifying these issues in complaints is the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), which has published a number of reports highlighting the human rights and discrimination elements of many complaints, particularly about vulnerable people in care or hospital (for example, this one on disability discrimination). The former Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has stated that ‘the Ombudsman’s approach includes an overall concept of fairness, a fundamental commitment to the humanity of individuals and their right to equality in treatment and outcomes. Issues of discrimination and equalities underlie many of the complaints which come to the Ombudsman…’.

The PHSO makes clear in its general standards for determining complaints that it will expect a public body to comply with the equalities and human right legislation and will hold them to account:

‘It is not the role of the Ombudsmen to adjudicate on matters of human rights law or to determine whether the law has been breached: those are matters for the courts. The Health Service Ombudsman’s Principles of Good Administration do, however, state that the Principle of ‘Getting it right’ includes acting in accordance with the law and with regard for the rights of those concerned, and taking reasonable decisions based on all relevant considerations….

If the public body is unable to demonstrate that it has had regard for, and taken account of, human rights, the Ombudsmen will take that fact into account when considering whether there has been maladministration and/or service failure.’

The Northern Ireland Ombudsman has been in the forefront if this work and has worked closely with the NI EHCR to develop a manual and training for complaint handlers to help them identify human rights issues in complaints they receive.

The UK Financial Ombudsman Service has published briefings on the need for businesses to comply with the Equality Act, such as this one. One of the issues is, as FOS points out, ‘consumers rarely articulate their complaint as “discrimination” – or invoke the Equality Act. More often than not, they’re simply frustrated at being unable to access the services they want or need to – and feel that the business’s processes are unnecessarily inflexible and impersonal.’

‘If ombudsmen want a broader canvas on which to paint their distinctive contribution human rights is probably the best, perhaps the only, place to turn at present.’ Nick O’Brien

An optimistic view is that ombudsmen in the UK will ‘increasingly contribute to wards the resolution of human rights issues in public administration, both in conducting investigatory work and in the office’s relations with other bodies’ (Buck et al, The Ombudsman Enterprise, 2011). Nick O’Brien, a human rights specialist and ombuds-watcher, has noted the increased consumerism plaguing ombuds schemes and argues that ombuds can mark themselves out among complaint-handling bodies by having a focus on discrimination and human rights issues: ‘If ombudsmen want a broader canvas on which to paint their distinctive contribution human rights is probably the best, perhaps the only, place to turn at present.’

How far do complaint handlers go in identifying discrimination or human rights as issues in complaints? How do ombuds and complaint handlers use the legal framework for discrimination and human rights in their casework and findings? Perhaps these questions need further research.