Yesterday, following months of "will they/won't they" speculation, and a day after selectively leaking the story to the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, Home Secretary Theresa May announced the government will not enforce the socio-economic duty created by the Equality Act.
The duty was originally scheduled to be implemented in April 2011 and would have imposed a new legal obligation on public bodies, including central government and local authorities, to consider what impact their strategic decisions would have on narrowing socio-economic inequalities, such as in healthcare and education.
Announcing the inclusion of the socio-economic duty in the Equality Act in January 2010, then deputy prime minister Harriet Harman said:
"A person's socio-economic background is still a key factor in determining their life chances -- how they get on at school, the chances of continuing with their education, their employment prospects and their health. This new legal duty will fall on every strategic body that affects these life chances and will be a catalyst for change so that more people have a better chance to enjoy a higher standard of living. Improving opportunities for everyone will be at the core of all key public services, and is a crucial part of the Equality Act."
Shortly after it was elected, however, the coalition government said it planned to hold off implementing the provision -- and others in the Equality Act, such as the requirement on private sector employers to publish gender pay gap information -- to examine their potential impact "on business and others with rights and responsibilities under the Act".
The decision drew a stinging rebuke from Fawcett Society chief executive Ceri Goddard who said "failing to implement the Act in full sends out a clear signal that creating a more equal society is a low priority for the government".
Ironic then, that it was left to the sole female senior minister in David Cameron's cabinet -- albeit a Caucasian, heterosexual, able-bodied, affluent, and independent school educated one -- to sweep such concerns aside.
In announcing the government's abandonment of the socio-economic duty, Ms May said: "They thought they could make people's lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better," she said. "That is why I am announcing today that we are scrapping Harman's law for good."
Going forward, she said, the government's emphasis would be on "fairness" rather than "equality". The latter had, she argued, become a "dirty word", associated with
"the worst forms of political correctness and social engineering".
"I recognise that 'fairness' is a word that many will feel is perhaps not as specific as 'equality'. But one of the problems is that equality has come to be seen by a lot of people as something that is available to others, and not to them.
"You can't make people's lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better. That was as ridiculous as it was simplistic."
She added that the duty "would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked [and] meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people's life chances."
- Theresa May scraps legal requirement to reduce inequality (Guardian)
- Home Secretary Theresa May to axe Harman's 'ridiculous' equality law (Daily Mail)
- Theresa May axes Harman's Law (Telegraph)
- Equality Act: the socio-economic duty (The Solicitor)
- Equality Act now in force: what's in and what's out? (The Solicitor)
- Equal opportunities (Findlaw.co.uk)
- Legal Q&A (Community)
- Find a solicitor (Contact Law)