Cuts to Talking Books Services
Suffolk County Council failed to have regard to the Equality Duty when it proposed Talking Books users would have their subscriptions stopped. RNIB complained on behalf of 'Mrs H' and six others who are blind or visually impaired. Suffolk County Council paid for them to have RNIB’s Talking Books Service. In 2010, the Council wrote to all those people whose subscriptions it paid, saying it would no longer pay for the service because they had not borrowed 20 books in the previous year. Mrs H said this was unfair because the Council had not told her beforehand that she had to borrow a minimum number of books. In October 2012 the Local Government Ombudsman issued a number of recommendations following their report into Suffolk County Council's failure to give regard to the Equality Duty.
The Ombudsman found the Council acted with maladministration when it stopped the subscriptions. The Ombudsman found that: before a public body decides to change policies or services, it should consider the likely impact of any proposals on disabled service users. It also found that decision makers should also consider the need to promote equality of opportunity and to take account of disabilities, even where that involves treating disabled people more favourably than others. The Council did not consider equality issues when it decided to set a minimum usage retrospectively or when it stopped individual subscriptions. The Council wrongly thought it could assess the impact on individuals after it made the decision. But a number of court cases say that decision makers should assess the impact before the decision is made.
Suffolk did not tell the complainants about the minimum use in advance, or that it proposed to stop their subscriptions if they did not borrow enough books. The only information the Council considered when it made the decision to stop funding a person’s subscription, was the number of books they had borrowed in the previous year. Because the Council did not carry out any consultation, it had no information about the likely impact of the decision on the complainants. It was wrong for the Council to say that an impact assessment could be carried out after the event: case law stipulates that this should be done before making the decision. The Ombudsman considered the Council failed to have regard to the public sector equality duty. In particular, the failure to carry out individual consultation and an assessment of the individual impact was maladministration.
In response to recommendations in a draft of this report, the Council updated its equality training and provided further training to its staff, including those working for the social enterprise, on the public sector equality duty and equality impact assessments. The Council has also said it will: contact each of the 250 people (including the complainants) whose subscriptions have been withdrawn and assess the impact on them. It will review the decision to stop the subscriptions to these individuals, bearing in mind the impact on them.
* Source: Joint response to the Government's Review of the Public Sector Equality Duty from a group of disability charities and disabled people’s organisations including: Action Disability Kensington and Chelsea, Action on Hearing Loss, Disability Rights UK, Inclusion London, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Mind, National AIDS Trust, Royal National Institute of Blind People, Scope and Sense