Public sector websites to be accessible for all users - what you need to know

  • Insight

20 November 2019

Regulations to ensure that public sector websites and certain mobile applications are accessible to all users, especially those with disabilities, are now being phased in across the whole of the UK.  This means that public sector bodies are now required by law to comply with specific accessibility standards, with compliance being phased in according to the dates below. The Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018 came into force on 23 September 2018, with the provisions to be introduced over a number of years.

Public sector bodies with websites falling within the first wave for compliance are now required by law to meet specified accessibility standards and to publish an accessibility statement. Compliance will be monitored by the UK Government.

What are your obligations?

The Regulations put affected public bodies under an obligation to undergo an assessment of their current website and apps in order to ensure that the information contained on these platforms is accessible to all. This must be done on an annual basis using the P.O.U.R. criteria, meaning the information must be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust. These are the requirements set out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1.  

Once public bodies have conducted this assessment, they must publish an accessibility statement on their website. This accessibility statement is a detailed, comprehensive and clear statement produced by a public sector body on the compliance of its website or mobile application with these Regulations. The statement must list inaccessible parts of the website or app, show how those with access needs can get alternatives to content that is not accessible, provide details on who to contact to report accessibility issues, provide information on the enforcement procedure if people are not happy with the response and be published in a fully accessible form.

What do you need to do to meet the deadlines?

  1. For public sector websites created on or after 23 September 2018, bodies needed to meet accessibility standards and publish an accessibility statement by 23 September 2019 
  2. For public sector websites that were published before 23 September 2018, the deadline for compliance is 23 September 2020
  3. Mobile applications of public sector bodies need to meet accessibility requirements by 23 June 2021

The Regulations define a ‘mobile application’ as ‘software designed and developed by or on behalf of a public sector body for use by the general public on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, but does not include the software that controls those devices (mobile operating systems) or hardware’.

In some circumstances, the 23 September 2019 deadline applies to websites that were published before 23 September 2018. For example, if a body makes substantial changes to the website’s code in order to create a new feature or if a body creates a subdomain with its own distinct codebase, then it is likely that it will be under an obligation to meet accessibility standards from 23 September 2019.

Are there any exemptions?

The new standards apply to almost all public sector body websites. Depending on the circumstances, charities, schools, nurseries and public sector broadcasters may be exempt from the requirements. A public body can be exempt from full compliance with the accessibility standards if the requirement is a ‘disproportionate burden’. A disproportionate burden is when the impact of fully meeting the requirements is too much for an organisation to reasonably cope with.

When making an assessment of whether something is a disproportionate burden, public sector bodies need to consider all the circumstances, including:

  • the organisation’s size and resources
  • the nature of the organisation (for example, if an organisation provides services aimed at people with disabilities, it will be more difficult to argue that something is a disproportionate burden)
  • the cost and impact of the changes

How will compliance be monitored and what are the risks of non-compliance?

From January 2020, the Government Digital Service (GDS) will monitor public sector bodies’ compliance on behalf of the Minister for the Cabinet Office. GDS will do this by examining a sample of public sector websites each year. GDS can request access to intranets, extranets or any public sector website. If GDS decides that a public sector body has failed to publish an accessibility statement or that the accessibility statement is incorrect, it can publish the name of the body and a copy of the decision. From June 2021, GDS will also review mobile applications published by public sector bodies.

Other legislation already imposes duties on service-providers to make reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities, to be found in the Equality Act 2010 in Great Britain and in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland. The Regulations state that a failure to comply with the accessibility requirement will constitute a failure to make a reasonable adjustment in terms of equality laws. Although assessment for compliance rests with the UK Government, the responsibility for enforcement, including dealing with complaints about non-compliance, rests with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (for Great Britain) and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. 

Public sector bodies - a definition

The Regulations define a ‘public sector body’ as the State, regional or local authorities, or other bodies governed by public law, including associations formed by one or more regional or local authorities or by bodies governed by public law (if those associations are established for the specific purpose of meeting needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character). The term ‘bodies governed by public law’ means bodies that are established for the specific purpose of meeting needs in the general interest, not having an industrial or commercial character, that have legal personality and:

  • are financed, for the most part, by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law
  • are subject to management supervision by those authorities or bodies; and
  • have an administrative, managerial or supervisory board, more than half of whose members are appointed by the State, regional or local authorities, or by other bodies governed by public law

How we can help

For further information about compliance with the Regulations, or to raise concerns about non-compliance, please contact Fiona.Killen@andersonstrathern.co.uk or Molly.McGrady@andersonstrathern.co.uk, view our Public Sector expertise areas here.