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Government stands by accessibility directive exemptions amid sector criticism

The UK Government has published its response to consultation feedback on its plans to implement European accessibility legislation. At the end of April, the government launched the public consultation on the EU Directive on the accessibility of public sector websites and mobile applications, detailing how it planned to introduce and handle the directive.

The consultation gathered 44 responses from individuals and organisations, including the British Computer Society’s Digital Accessibility Specialist Group, disability charity Scope and RNIB.

One point of concern for many respondents was a proposal to allow schools, kindergartens and nurseries to be largely exempt from the directive. 62% of consultation respondents disagreed with the idea, questioning why such a large sector would be excluded, also suggesting alternatives.

However, the government response states that it stands by this proposal: “Government policy is not to go beyond the minimum requirements of European Directives unless there are exceptional circumstances. In accordance with this policy, we will make use of all exemptions available in the Directive.”

Other exemptions to the Directive include the websites and mobile apps of public service broadcasters (including the BBC) and some NGOs, plus some third-party content that appears on public sector websites. Some respondents questioned these exemptions and highlighted potential accessibility problems for users. Once again, the government response states its intention to ‘make use’ of all possible exemptions.

This harnessing of optional exemptions has been criticised by accessibility advocates, including Carine Marzin – a member of the European Disability Forum ICT Expert Group – who labelled the strategy ‘very disappointing’ in a previous issue of e-Access Bulletin.

The government response states that a review of the regulations will take place two years after they come into force, which will include examining how exemptions are working and “if these need to be changed.”

Enforcement of the regulations was another consultation topic. The consultation proposed that the Government Digital Service (GDS) monitor and record public sector bodies’ compliance with the Directive, but also that there were no plans to introduce ‘new fines’ for organisations failing to comply with the Directive.

Some respondents criticised “the lack of detail on a proposed enforcement mechanism”, and others suggested that fines or a published list of non-complying organisations should be used as penalties.

This lack of sanctions is labelled as “disappointing” in the consultation response of Policy Connect – a cross-party think-tank providing support to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Assistive Technology (APPGAT). Policy Connect claims that “Sanctions are a well-established part of effective enforcement mechanisms and should be a part of enforcement of the present regulations.”

The government response states that while GDS will monitor and report on compliance with the Directive, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will undertake enforcement. Additionally, the Minister for the Cabinet Office will be given some enforcement powers. The government claims that this approach “makes sure the process for resolving accessibility concerns is robust.”

The Directive will be implemented on September 23. Deadlines for public sector organisations to comply with the regulations fall at different points during 2019-2021 depending on when content was created.

Read the government’s response in full at the GOV.UK website.

Read Policy Connect’s consultation response in full at the Policy Connect website.

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