Exclusive: New evidence suggests Department for Transport ignoring its Public Sector Equality Duty

Photo collage of the Department for Transport Logo, Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) logo, Equality and Human Rights Committee (EHRC) logo, and a photograph of Mark Harper, Transport Minister, at the Transport Select Committee

New evidence suggests that the Department for Transport (DfT) is failing to co-operate with an intervention by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) on railway destaffing; and ignoring its public sector equality duty in the formation of Great British Railways.

The new documents were obtained via freedom of information requests to the EHRC and the DfT’s statutory advisors on accessibility, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC). Both raise serious questions about whether the DfT is performing its duties under the Equality Act 2010, and suggest that it has not conducted any Equality Impact Assessments on staffing cuts in the last 18 months.

1. EHRC Correspondence – Download Here.

On 13th December 2022, the EHRC began an intervention into railway destaffing, reminding the DfT of their “legal duty to ensure that rail services are accessible to everyone”. The EHRC warned: “The public sector equality duty in the Equality Act requires active consideration of equality across your work, including in the development of your policies and the use of your powers. This means thinking about the equality implications of decisions, monitoring impact, and taking action if necessary.”

Following “widespread reports” of rail inaccessibility from the public, and concerning feedback from DPTAC, the EHRC requested a meeting with the DfT, and publication of “Equality Impact Assessments on all departmental policies to improve compliance and transparency.”

On 11th January 2023, the DfT responded, claiming “[We pay] due regard to equality issues when forming and delivering new policy, in line with the public sector equality duty.” However, they refused to publish Equality Impact Assessments because “there is no legal requirement” and “discussion on the scope of workforce reforms is ongoing”. Over four months later, the EHRC has informed us that the DfT has still not taken up its request for a meeting. (A day after this blog was posted, the EHRC informed us that the DfT has now agreed to a meeting in the second half of May).

2. DPTAC: Response to Whole Industry Strategic Plan (WISP) Call for Evidence – Download here.

In December 2021, DPTAC submitted a 4,000 word response to the WISP Call for Evidence, strongly criticising the “poverty of ambition” behind Great British Railway’s 30-year strategy. Containing extensive warnings on equality law and the DfT’s public sector equality duty, it appears to be the DPTAC advice referred to in the EHRC letter.

The document sets out in detail what DfT needs to do to fulfil its PSED, in particular to narrow the huge gap in rail usage and satisfaction – for example, disabled adults make 28% fewer trips and travel 40% fewer rail miles than non-disabled adults; and of these two thirds experience a problem on their journey. The “key intervention” would be to set specific targets to eliminate this gap, including the removal of all non-physical barriers to accessibility within 5-10 years, and full physical accessibility within 30 years.

However, the WISP Call for Evidence had already imposed a severe limitation on GBR’s long-term strategy – requiring respondents to suggest cost-cutting “trade-offs” that could be made; and warning them that it would not consider any requests for new investment.[1] In its response, DPTAC strongly objects to this limitation, arguing that they are not aware of “any properly holistic cross-governmental work” on the financial benefits of an accessible railway “despite this being at the core of the economic case for improving accessibility”.[2] GBR’s aim merely to ‘widen accessibility’ means that “even at the end of the 30 year period… the railway would still fall some considerable way short of being fully accessible”, and that “around a fifth of the UK’s population will potentially fail to benefit from the government’s plans to ‘level-up’ and improve connectivity”.

DPTAC warns: “The lack of ambition is particularly disappointing given the legislative background of the Equality Act (and associated Public Sector Equality Duty), the railways’ own regulatory framework, and the promised new ‘Accessibility Duty’ to be placed upon GBR”. It also emphasises that driver-only trains and unstaffed stations represent the main risk for the future, because “successful legal challenge…may hard-wire accessibility requirements into industry operational practices or require a major re-shaping.” In other words, the risk posed by unlawful destaffing policies would also threaten the financial structure behind the railway, requiring significant costs to revise contractual arrangements after a legal precedent is set.

Is the DfT ignoring its Public Sector Equality Duty?

Taken together, the documents strongly suggest that DfT has not conducted Equality Impact Assessments or other relevant studies on the social and economic impact of destaffing plans; nor the long-term accessibility strategy behind Great British Railways. If such studies have been conducted, then the DfT is refusing to share them with their own statutory advisors (DPTAC) and the UK’s regulator of equality law (EHRC).

The DfT is correct that EIAs “are not a legal requirement” in a specific sense; but case law on PSED shows that public bodies must pay “due regard” to equality issues both prior to and during relevant policy decisions. The key question becomes: when was a policy decision made for which the DfT could be held accountable? And has it completed relevant studies on social and economic impact that it took into account when making the decision?

The DfT has resisted transparency about staffing reform throughout last 18 month period of rail reform and the industrial dispute – with evidence that it has concealed its plans from even its own statutory advisors.[3] Yet, it is undisputed that the government is imposing up to £2 billion in cuts on the rail industry, including a mandate on train companies to target staffing. The method taken to impose these cuts will almost certainly consist of a combination of ticket office closures and the migration of a staff to a generic “multi-skilled” role; representing the biggest changes to staffing, accessibility and ticket retail in generations.

In this context, the DfT must immediately release any studies it has conducted showing the effect of budget cuts on equality, to prove that any new policies are consistent with PSED, and will therefore improve accessibility across the network. If this evidence does not exist, then a complete reassessment of the budget and government-given mandate for staffing cuts is urgently required.

The DfT refused to comment on any of these matters, nor say whether it has conducted EIAs on any of the workforce reform plans currently being proposed by the Rail Delivery Group to the RMT. It is now up to MPs, the Transport Select Committee, and the EHRC to demand the urgent release of these studies.


References:

[1] The WISP Call for Evidence emphasised that valid responses would suggest “trade-offs” that could be made to cut costs, and that answers should “take into account that in all future scenarios, we expect affordability to be a significant constraint.” It warned respondents in advance that no new investments would be considered, unless evidence was provided of the costs savings they would create.

[2] DPTAC’s economic argument was expanded further in DPTAC’s Rail Workforce Reform report, submitted to the DfT in February 2022.

[3] In October 2022, a key DPTAC member resigned in protest at the DfT’s failure to provide transparency about its rail workforce reform plans. He was the second of three DPTAC members working under non-disclosure agreements with Great British Railways to have resigned over the last year; with its former Chair resigning immediately after his pledge to bring transparency to the committee in May 2022.

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