Vasiliki Mani, GDL student, The College of Law Birmingham
Remploy provide a range of services to people who have a disability or health condition and want to return to work. It employs thousands of disabled employees in specialist factories.
In March 2012, Remploy management proposed many changes to its operations, following the government decision to reduce its funding. As a result, 36 of the 54 Remploy factories, which exist to provide employment services for disabled employees, will close. More than 1,700 staff face compulsory redundancy, including 1,500 disabled employees. Many Remploy staff have protested against the factory closures.
The Government has supported Remploy’s plans by indicating that the money saved from the closure of the factories will be used:
• to provide part-funding of the Access to Work Scheme
• to help unemployed disabled workers find employment
• to reduce demands on the tax payer or reduce the national deficit
However, in order to comply with the public sector equality duty, the closures will mean that people with disabilities and who have lost their job will still either be financially supported by the State to help find employment, or will be assisted by receiving the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
General aim of the Equality Act
The aim of the Equality Act 2010 (EA) is to build a strong legal framework so as to safeguard the rights of people in under-represented groups. All employers must also comply with the general duties in the EA which prohibit any form of direct or indirect discrimination, discrimination arising from disability, harassment and victimisation.
In addition, the public sector equality duty contained in s149 EA came into force on 5 April 2011. It seeks to promote equality in employment and applies to a wide range of public bodies (listed in Schedule 19 of the EA).
The duty requires a public body to take positive steps in order to eliminate discrimination, promote and advance equality and provide opportunities for those with a protected characteristic, such as a disability. Those who are responsible for the implementation of the duty are required to consider all employees when shaping their policies.
The public sector equality duty
This new feature of the Act places a duty to have ‘due regard’ to the need to remove all potential barriers in the field of employment. From the definition given in s149, there are three main elements to the duty to have ‘due regard’, namely to:
• minimise and remove a disadvantage
• take positive steps to meet those needs
• encourage participation in public life
To comply with their duties relating to disabled people, public bodies must remove any barriers that could place a disabled employee in a less favourable position than a non-disabled employee.
They need to amend decision-making processes and policies, and take active and positive steps to encourage the participation of disabled people in the field of employment.
Public bodies must also publish certain information in a format and in ways which are accessible to the public at large (EA 2010 (Specific Duties) Regulations 2011). The continuing nature of the duty requires not only that the body provides information about steps that they have adopted, but also that it publishes information showing compliance with the duty. For example, it should set out future or current strategic plans, monitoring schemes, policies and practices which aim to promote equality.
The public sector duty in theory
So, how then can a public body encourage the participation of people with disabilities in the employment field?
First, consider the wide definition of the meaning of ‘due regard’. In practice, this is equated to ‘being aware’. Thus in practice, having ‘due regard’ to policies and regulations in employment would be such a wide definition that the duty would apply to all employment practices which are adopted by a public body. So, in employment it would cover and impact upon negotiation of terms of employment, on working hours, pay and working arrangements. It could touch upon access to training opportunities and benefits offered to employees. It also requires adjustment to physical barriers in the working environment, such as the premises.
The public sector duty in practice
The duty was introduced and implemented to support the enforcement of the rights in the EA 2010 designed to eliminate obstacles for disabled employees.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has issued a Triennial Review 2010, titled ‘How Fair is Britain?’. Findings included the fact that disabled people still face significant barriers in the workplace compared to others, with only 50% of them employed compared to 79% of non-disabled adults.
With the need for improvement in mind, the Government has tried to increase the overall budget for two schemes run by Job Centre Plus – the Access to Work Scheme and Work Choice. They also offer financial support, advice and training to employers and employees. The closure of the 36 Remploy factories is part of the measures taken to divert funding to Job Centre Plus.
Despite the nature of this public sector equality duty which aims to remove barriers in employment, it seems that theory and practice can sometimes be quite different. It is questionable whether disabled people will be offered sufficient protection as the closure of factories has already left 1,500 of them searching for employment.
A reduction in incapacity benefit is another measure taken by the Government to improve the overall budget. The new ESA will only be paid for a maximum of one year. However, people with disabilities may find it much harder to find employment in 12 months, especially when the disability is related to a mental issue.
The state has a duty to ensure equality in the employment field. Ironically, however, it seems that a disabled job-seeker’s rights under the EA are (at least temporarily) suspended due to having to search for employment in a period when opportunities are very limited. It could be argued that the public sector will only actually comply with the duty to promote equality in the employment field in relation to a disabled employee when their needs actually impact on the state budget.
In a period where the number of unemployed people in the UK stands at 2.65 million, the decision to close Remploy factories hardly seems to comply with the non-discriminatory duty placed on the public sector bodies to promote and advance equality for people with disabilities. In fact, it contradicts the principle which prohibits any discrimination against a disabled employee which could place them at a disadvantage in the workplace.
S149 of the Equality Act 2010 can be accessed through www.legislation.gov.uk
Information about Remploy is available on www.remploy.co.uk
Vasiliki Mani - biography
Vasiliki Mani is from Nicosia, Cyprus. She attended the University of Crete, Greece, and received a Bachelors degree in Political Science in 2007. She then cotinued her studies at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, and obtained a Masters degree in European Studies in 2008.
In 2010 she was employed as a paralegal at Dr. K. Chrysostomides & Co LLC, one of the most successful law firms in Cyprus. Inspired by the professional ethics and having an insight of the legal profession she decided to pursue her dream in becoming a lawyer and commenced the Graduate Diploma in Law at The College of Law Birmingham in 2011.