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The Equality and Human Rights Commission was delighted when, in May, the UK Government’s consultation on our future concluded that the EHRC should have a “strong and distinct presence” in Wales. Why is this so important to us and our stakeholders?
We need a strong and distinct presence because, since devolution, different approaches to equality and human rights have been a major distinguishing factor between the Welsh, Scottish and UK Governments. In Wales this began right back in 1999. When the Assembly opened its doors it had a legal obligation to “pay due regard” to equality in all it did. This was found, by experts, to have turned the tables by strengthening the hands of equality campaigners and making it more difficult to marginalise equality.
Much more recently, the Equality Act 2010 introduced a new GB-wide Public Sector Equality Duty, but the Welsh Government was given the power to write the Specific Duties for Wales – they are significantly different and more far reaching than those in England and Scotland. And last month Equality Minister Jane Hutt confirmed that in Wales the use of Equality Impact Assessments is very much expected – while the UK Government has advised English public bodies that they are unnecessary.
On human rights the Welsh Government has taken steps to build the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children into public services delivery. And the Commission on a Bill of Rights noted “the uniquely Welsh policy approaches” to human rights.
The differences in approach to equality and human rights across the nations are only likely to get wider, as each Government looks to find unique solutions to each country’s unique problems.
So we at the Equality and Human Rights Commission have a strong and distinct equality and human rights agenda to support and regulate. Our next step is to seek to secure that agenda for the future – to protect the opportunity for Welsh stakeholders, the Welsh Government and the National Assembly to define and control the approach to equality and human rights in Wales.
Devolve more powers to Wales
We have concluded the best way to secure the strong and distinctive approach to equality and human rights in Wales is to seek more powers. We have prepared advice to Jane Hutt, making suggestions about what could be included in a Welsh Government submission to the Silk Commission. We also plan to make one ourselves and are working up three recommendations.
First, we recommend that the National Assembly should have primary legislative competence in relation to the Public Sector Equality Duty enabling it to amend the Duty, for example, to introduce a socio-economic duty. It would give the National Assembly certainty of being in full control of any changes to the PSED for the future. As a result, there will be greater clarity and certainty. And the distinctive approach to equality will be strengthened, to support the drive for improvements in Welsh public service and for Welsh citizens.
Second, we recommend the National Assembly should be able to amend, and build on, UK equality and human rights legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998. This would enable it to introduce Welsh-specific provisions in relation to the public sector should it wish to do so in the future.
Third, we recommend the National Assembly should be given competence to strengthen its relationship with ourselves, the Equality and Human Rights Commission. At present, the EHRC is a GB-wide organisation, solely funded by the UK Government. If the National Assembly is given enhanced powers for equality and human rights legislation this would require the approach of the EHRC to be adapted in Wales – tailoring our work still further to the devolved and distinctive context.
We look forward to the debate the Silk Commission on Devolution brings on the positive and possible negative impact of changes to the current devolution settlement. Your views on how equality and human rights are faring under devolution would be helpful to us as we finalise our response, so please get in touch. Together, through partnership, we can build a strong equality and human rights agenda in Wales.
Kate Bennett is National Director for Wales, Equality and Human Rights Commission