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Public sector IT buyers could find themselves in breach of disability discrimination laws when deploying some Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products procured via the Digital Marketplace, it is feared.
This follows the disappearance of safeguards, introduced with G-Cloud 5 in May 2014, to help public sector organisations source cloud services that can be used with relative ease by people with visual impairments, manual dexterity issues or learning difficulties, for example.
As such, the G-Cloud 5 admissions process asked SaaS providers to self-declare how their services conformed to the three-tiered Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG) standards.
Details of these self-declarations were included in the supplier profiles of G-Cloud 5 participants, so public sector IT buyers could shortlist services that met their specific web accessibility needs.
The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) applauded the government’s decision to introduce the requirement at the time, describing it as a “modest” yet “profoundly important” move that would contribute towards society delivering on its inclusion and equality obligations.
Documents passed to Computer Weekly, however, suggest the requirement was quietly dropped from the admissions process for G-Cloud 6, and is yet to be repeated in any subsequent iterations of the framework.
Sources in the G-Cloud community claim senior figures in the Government Digital Service (GDS) are aware of the omission, and have privately assured concerned suppliers the requirement will reappear at some point.
Disability discrimination awareness
With no pressure on suppliers to declare their compliance with WCAG 2.0, John Glover, sales and marketing director at G-Cloud-listed online collaboration firm Kahootz, fears this could lead to public sector organisations unwittingly deploying cloud services with low levels of web accessibility.
“Before G-Cloud, most ICT invitation to tender documents asked suppliers to declare the level of WCAG 2.0 compliance as standard,” said Glover.
“When G-Cloud launched, this question was never asked and new IT suppliers to the public sector were unaware of their obligations from an anti-disability discrimination perspective, leading to cloud services being deployed with poor levels of web accessibility.”
By failing to ensure the cloud services they procure can be used and accessed by disabled users, public sector organisations could be sued for discrimination under the terms of the Equality Act 2010, warned Amy Bell, head of compliance at law firm QualitySolicitors.
“The Equality Act requires that you don’t discriminate against people, and requires businesses to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate people with disabilities,” she told Computer Weekly.
In the online world, these adjustments relate to introducing steps that make a website or service accessible for people with visual impairments, manual dexterity issuers or learning difficulties.
“If you are a user and you think a particular organisation’s website or services aren’t complaint, you could bring an action against that organisation,” she continued.
“You could make a complaint to the organisation, and ask them to explain why you’re having difficulties, take them to court or pursue alternative dispute resolution, as a way of avoiding court.”
Read more about G-Cloud
- Public sector IT suppliers have asked the government to extend G-Cloud 5’s stay of execution, fearing the six-month extension granted earlier this week will prove insufficient.
- Not one G-Cloud supplier has been penalised for failing to submit details of how much business they have secured through the framework since its introduction in 2012, the Cabinet Office has confirmed.
If such a complaint is upheld, the individual raising it could be in line for compensation to cover any additional costs incurred by being unable to access the service.
“The compensation could cover the extra money you have to pay to access the service, or the cost of paying for an interpreter, and you can be awarded compensation for hurt feelings too,” Bell added.
The complainant can also apply for judicial review, under the terms of the Equality Act 2010’s public sector quality duty clause.
This piece of the legislation imposes a responsibility on public sector organisations to consider how their policies and decisions affect those covered by the wider Equality Act.
“The Judicial review process is to make the organisation change its behaviour for the good of everybody. You might see this approach used if a charity takes action against a website, rather than a particular individual who felt they had been discriminated against,” said Bell.
The wait for G-Cloud 8
Applications for the next version of the G-Cloud framework are set to open the week of 16 to 22 May 2016. It is unclear at this point if the requirement for suppliers to self-declare their WCAG 2.0 compliance will be reintroduced ahead of G-Cloud 8’s provisional go-live date of 1 August 2016.
This is particularly as the draft list of questions GDS wants SaaS suppliers to fill in as part of the G-Cloud 8 application process does not ask them to share details of how web accessible their services are.
In a statement to Computer Weekly, a GDS spokesperson said the organisation is committed to ensuring public sector services are accessible to all, and is holding a series of events on the topic of accessibility on 19 May 2016.
“We are committed to making government services accessible to people with disabilities and will be exploring how best to use the Digital Marketplace to help achieve this. We are currently taking action in this area by having dedicated accessibility experts developing our Gov.UK website,” the statement read.
“We will continue to work on giving buyers better guidance around accessibility requirements when buying digital services and products.”
However, Kahootz’s Glover said every SaaS provider touting their wares on G-Cloud has a moral obligation to conform to at least the second tier of the WCAG 2.0, regardless of what GDS has to say on the matter.
“Although improved guidance for buyers is helpful, only by adding Web Accessibility Initiative selection filters to the Digital Marketplace will buyers be able to feel confident about the accessibility of the cloud applications they procure,” he added.
Steve Tyler, head of solutions, strategy and planning at the RNIB, backed this view and said the government has duty of care to ensure public sector services are accessible to all.
“We urge the government to take a lead to improve accessibility. This is vital given the number of people who still aren’t using online services because of unnecessary and entirely removable barriers,” said Tyler.