The UK government has unveiled its position on the EU Web Accessibility Directive, the draft law aiming to reform the dire state of accessibility in public sector web sites across Europe. (You can read my full briefing on the draft law here.)
Typically, the UK government has done this in an inaccessible PDF (242kb).
— Carine Marzin (@CarineMarzin) April 5, 2016
Rather than running out of the house screaming I ran the letter through OneNote, which has a handy text recognition function for graphic PDFs. The full text of the letter therefore follows here.
7 March 2016
Sir William Cash MP
Chair Of the European Scrutiny Committee
House of Commons
SCRUTINY OF DOCUMENT 17344/12 (COMMITTEE REFERENCE 34512):
PROPOSAL FOR A DIRECTIVE OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL ON THE ACCESSIBILITY OF PUBLIC SECTOR BODIES’ WEBSITES
In the last Parliament, the European Commission proposed a Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites. My predecessor, Lord Maude, had ministerial responsibility for this Directive. He last wrote to you on 9 February 2015; this is my first update to the committees since becoming Minister for Cabinet Office in May 2015.
I apologise for not having written to the committees sooner. As you know, this Directive has been dormant for some time. It was only in the Luxembourg presidency at the end of 2015 that a focus was placed back on this Directive. Post-election, and with a new impetus to act, I sought to renew our collective approach to this proposal. This has taken some time to agree we sought clarity from the Commission on the practical implementation of these proposals. I wanted to ensure clarity about this Directive before presenting an update to the committee.
When my predecessor last wrote, our position was to support the Directive as we believed the UK was already going beyond the requirements set out in the Directive. It has been the policy of successive governments to adhere to the WCAG 2.0 standard in the public sector, though this is not enshrined in law. The legal basis for accessibility in the UK is not based on standards but instead on duties to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to make services accessible to people with disabilities.
Progress to date
Council discussions stalled on this Directive for some time. My predecessor hoped the Latvian Presidency might renew interest in this Directive. but this did not happen. Council Working Group negotiations restarted and progressed rapidly from October to December 2015: the Luxembourg presidency agreed a mandate at COREPER to begin informal trilogues with the European Parliament in December 2015. The UK did not support the mandate at this time because we did not have an agreed position to do so and because of policy concerns set out in detail below.
We’ve been working with other member states and the Commission to ensure that:
- web accessibility is considered in a way that is agnostic of the device used to access websites and their content
- the definition of ‘public sector bodies’ which the standard applies to is practical and clear
- the types of content that must adhere to the standard (such as documents and time-based media) can reasonably be made accessible, and where they cannot, that they are excluded from the scope of the Directive
- the transposition dates are reasonable and achievable for implementation any monitoring and reporting requirements were achievable, practical and grounded in repeatable and robust processes
- the use of delegated acts and associated standards was limited to ensure appropriate powers are conferred to the Commission in this area
A number of these concerns have now been addressed in Council negotiations. I’m hopeful that we can maintain them in the informal trilogues and beyond. A number of areas continue to be a concern, however; I have detailed these below.
Definition of ‘public sector bodies’
The government does not believe the current definition of “public sector bodies” is appropriate. This broad definition of ‘public sector bodies’ is legally unclear, open to interpretation and could significantly increase the economic burden on the UK.
To be clear, the UK should live up to its existing commitments and legal requirements in respect of people with disabilities; but nationally these obligations are framed in the context of ‘reasonable adjustments’. If we are to move away from the concept of reasonable adjustments, which are based on individual user need, towards a hard rule of applying standards for web accessibility that we monitor and enforce, we must have clarity about what constitutes a public sector body.
The government would like to see a scope that is clear – that means limiting the applicability of the Directive to central, local and devolved government. Given the Commission’s belief that implementing this Directive will create a multiplier effect in the broader digital services industry, this does not water down the intent. but instead helps to clarify it so that we know what action we need to take.
Compliance, monitoring and reporting
The need for a clear definition of ‘public sector bodies’ is further highlighted in relation to compliance, monitoring and enforcement. The Directive asks member states to establish a regime to assess how well they are meeting the new standards. Whilst a good objective, it is unachievable in its proposed form because:
- without a clear scope (e.g. without a clear definition of ‘public sector body’) we cannot assess the UK’s compliance with the standards in the Directive
- the technology and assessment techniques to achieve monitoring of web accessibility simply don’t exist at a scale that make this objective possible to achieve without significant financial cost to public sector institutions
Separately, the standard which this Directive will bring into force requires compliance to be absolute. In order to be compliant with that standard, a website must meet or exceed all of the listed criteria and remain compliant at all times. Whilst this is technically possible, it is practically unachievable.
Relation to the European Accessibility Act
In previous correspondence, the committee noted the potential overlaps with the European Accessibility Act (EAA) – At the time, the Commission’s plans were unclear about when the Act might actually be published – it now has been.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills already submitted an Explanatory Memorandum on the EAA to Parliament earlier this year on 13 January 2015. Broadly, the overlaps of this Directive with the EAA are minimal. The only significant overlap is that the accessibility standard being introduced for websites in the EPA is the same standard being referenced in this Directive. At this time, they should be seen as complementary, rather than overlapping in nature.
Given how negotiations on this Directive have progressed, our position should now be to only support this Directive if the concerns I have highlighted above can be addressed. I will keep you informed on progress ahead of this proposal returning to the Council of Ministers for further discussion or agreement.
I am copying this letter to Lord Boswell and to Les Saunders Christian Lacey-Brennan and John Peart in the Cabinet Office.
THE RT HON MATTHEW HANCOCK MP
About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and was a professional web site designer from 2007-2015. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.