Documents considered by the Committee on 13 July 2016 Contents

12Accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites

Committee’s assessment

Legally and politically important

Committee’s decision

Cleared from scrutiny

Document details

Proposal for a Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites

Legal base

Article 114(1) TFEU; QMV; ordinary legislative procedure

Department

Cabinet Office

Document Numbers

(34512), 17344/12 + ADDs 1–2, COM(12) 721

Summary and Committee’s conclusions

12.1This proposal first emerged in 2012. It seeks to improve the accessibility of public sector websites, and thereby help Member States meet their obligations under the relevant UN Convention,36 and facilitate cross-border access, by harmonising the approaches taken by Member States and thus removing the significant differences currently in place across the EU.

12.2The Directive is aimed at public sector bodies because they provide essential information and services to citizens. The Commission argues that harmonisation would also assist businesses, especially SMEs, by helping to remove uncertainties over web accessibility specifications and standards; and also help web developers create a more secure and sizeable market, with positive spin-off for their work in other sectors. In developing the Directive, the Commission took account of existing standards on Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0) issued by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C); European Standardisation Organisations (CEN, CENELEC, and ETSI)37 were accordingly developing a standard that conformed with this international standard. The background and details of the draft Directive are summarised in the previous Committee’s first relevant Report (and the types of public sector bodies’ websites as referred to in Article 1 are at the Annex to this chapter of our Report). The Directive would be reviewed within three years of its entry into force. But the proposal did not get going (largely because the Latvian Presidency had other priorities) until autumn 2015.38

12.3It was, however, not until March 2016 that the Minister (Matthew Hancock) told the Committee that it had been kick-started by the Luxembourg Presidency. Council Working Group negotiations had progressed rapidly from October to December 2015, and a mandate was agreed at COREPER39 to begin informal trilogues with the European Parliament (EP) in December 2015; but he highlighted a number of concerns that needed to be addressed before he could support the Directive.40

Our assessment

12.4Our most recent Report provides a brief summary of the subsequent exchanges (and the previous ones, a detailed account). In sum, the draft Directive was now presumably very different from that deposited in 2013. Other Ministers found no difficulty in keeping the Committee fully up-to-date with the negotiating process, regardless of whether the text under discussion could be put into the public domain, and particularly when a version was going to COREPER for a decision on whether or not to move forward after working group negotiations. This was particularly the case when the Council itself was acting in a most un-transparent way, by establishing an informal mandate through COREPER rather than by agreeing a General Approach in Council, which would not only have been a document in the public domain but also subject to the scrutiny reserve of this House. Although the Minister did not mention this, the Council had in fact put into the public domain the negotiating mandate of December 2015, but not the second mandate which appeared to have been put forward for agreement in a Presidency document of 25 February 2016.41 The negotiation mandate of the European Parliament was also in the public domain. The questions we posed on the transparency of the procedure and the development of the text42 had in mind the Committee’s ongoing inquiry into the transparency of Council Decision making.

12.5On 9 May, the Minister provided a copy of the latest available text, subject to the normal caveats;43 the text of the final agreement reached at 3 May Trilogue negotiations was not yet available; but he provided description of what had been confirmed by the Trilogue The Minister was satisfied that “public sector body” was now defined in a sufficiently clear manner, and in particular ensured that schools could be exempted by Member States, except for essential administrative functions, as defined by each Member State. He was also satisfied that the correct technical expertise would be utilised to agree the compliance and monitoring mechanism and thus assure its fitness for purpose, and that conceding the use of delegated acts to update the standard would not cross his “red lines”. Overall, it was in the UK’s interest to vote in favour of this Directive: it would have a positive impact on a great number of people who suffered from mobility impairments and who had poor sight in later life; the use of eGovernment tools reduced administrative burdens to businesses, made life simpler for individuals, and reduced costs to the public purse; the UK’s Digital by Default policy put the UK “ahead of the curve on eGovernment and accessibility” and this Directive would help other Member States attain similar levels of accessibility (see “Background” for further details).

Our further assessment

12.6The Committee granted a scrutiny waiver for the 26 May Telecoms Council, provided that the final proposed text reflected what the Minister had told us. In the meantime, the dossier remained under scrutiny, pending an update on the outcome of the Council.44

12.7The Minister has now provided an update on the final English language text “currently being translated by jurist-linguists”, subject to the same caveat. He recalls that the aim of this directive—shared by the Government and enshrined in “the award-winning GOV.UK platform”—is “to allow citizens with disabilities to equally reap the advantages of public sector digital services”, via agreeing a minimum standard of accessibility across all Member States in order to ensure that “citizens mobile across the EU will be able to access essential public services”. Having “been lobbied on the importance of this directive by campaign groups active on behalf of the disabled in the UK”, the Minister is now “convinced that this text is in their interest”; with the UK “ahead of the curve on eGovernment and accessibility”, this Directive “will help other Member States attain similar levels of accessibility” (see “Background” for further details).

12.8We are grateful to the Minister for this final update, and now clear this dossier from further scrutiny.

12.9In so doing, we note that the Minister continues, quite properly, to share limité texts with the Committee, thus enabling it properly to fulfil the job delegated to it by the House (unlike his counterpart in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who persists in undermining our role by refusing to do so).

Full details of the documents

Proposal for a Directive on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites: (34512), 17344/12 + ADDs 1–2, COM(12) 721.

Background

12.10The full background is set out in the reports cited at the end of this chapter of our Report.

12.11Our most recent Report sets out the Minister’s detailed concerns as of 7 March 2016 concerning the definition of “public sector bodies” and “Compliance, monitoring and reporting”; and a description as of 9 May of what has been confirmed by the Trilogue under the headings: Points of contention between the EP and Council pre-Trilogue; Scope; Content; Delegated acts and advisory procedure; Responsibility for enforcement; and Other changes.

12.12The Minister described UK Policy objectives thus:

“In my previous letter I highlighted two remaining points of contention in the Council position: the definition of ‘public sector body’ and the compliance and monitoring regime. I am satisfied that the Trilogue agreement defines public sector body in a sufficiently clear manner, due to cross-referencing the Public Procurement Directive. From a policy perspective, the inclusion of text affirming the Proportionality Principle and exemptions for Disproportionate Burden ensures that schools can be exempted by Member States, except for the essential administrative functions; the definition of which are to be defined by each Member States.

“I believe the use of the examination procedure to agree the compliance and monitoring mechanism will ensure that the correct technical expertise will be utilised in its development and fitness for purpose will be assured. We had aspired to use the examination procedure for each update of the standard, however, in the spirit of compromise, it was necessary to concede to the use of delegated acts to update the standard. I do not feel that this crosses our red lines: there is real need to ensure that proper expertise is used in the setting of the standard, which can be assured by using the examination procedure. Once this evidence base is established, there is far less risk of an unsuitable standard being set in further updates.

“Overall, it is in the UK’s interest to vote in favour of this Directive. The Directive will have a positive impact on a great number of people: online accessibility is vital to those who suffer from mobility impairments and, notwithstanding other disabilities, a third of Europeans will have poor sight or be partially blind in later life. The use of eGovernment tools reduces administrative burden to businesses and makes life simpler for individuals, all whilst reducing costs to the public purse by moving interactions between citizens and the state online. The UK’s Digital by Default policy puts this into practice. It is paramount, therefore, that these interactions can be used by all: websites and mobile apps should be functional with accessibility software and hardware. This Directive and its subsequent standard will set in place the minimum requirements to ensure that anyone is able to take advantage of eGovernment, regardless of their disability. For the UK, we are ahead of the curve on eGovernment and accessibility and this Directive will help other Member States attain similar levels of accessibility.”45

The Minister’s letter of 23 June 2016

12.13The Minister wrote as follows46:

Objective of the Directive and benefits to the UK

“The aim of this directive is to allow citizens with disabilities to equally reap the advantages of public sector digital services. This aim is shared by the UK government and accessibility is enshrined in the design principles of the Government Digital Service, who built and managed the award-winning GOV.UK platform. Indeed, those with disabilities are often more reliant on digital services than those without. The aim will be achieved by agreeing a minimum standard of accessibility across all Member States, a standard to which the UK is already signed up. It is appropriate for the EU to act in this area as it will ensure that citizens mobile across the EU will be able to access essential public services. Furthermore, as government systems become more interoperable, users won’t find themselves unable to continue part of their ‘online journey’ when working across borders due to reduced accessibility in a second Member State’s services.

“I have been lobbied on the importance of this directive by campaign groups active on behalf of the disabled in the UK and I am convinced that this text is in their interest.”

Successful avoidance of policy risks

“At the outset of the negotiations of this Directive, my policy officials identified a number of risks:

“That the minimum standard would be unfit for purpose or decided without adequate technical expertise.

“The scope of the Directive reaching beyond the public sector to cover services such as utilities.

“That the scope of the content covered by the Directive would be too wide to be unmanageable or too narrow so as to continue to leave disabled users at an unacceptable disadvantage.

“That the burden on small public bodies would be unmanageable.

“A requirement for the UK to create a new ombudsman to adjudicate disputes brought for a breach of the minimum standard.

“That monitoring and reporting would be overly burdensome.

Standard

“The technical specifications and minimum standard will be set by the advisory procedure, allowing for maximum involvement of the Member States and adequate inclusion of technical expert opinion. The standard will be updated by an implementing act. I consider this to be an adequate use of implementing acts as the advisory procedure will ensure a strong and sound foundation and the standard should only be updated when there is a clear step-change in the industry-agreed standards.

Scope

“As I highlighted in my last letter, it is explicitly stated that the Directive will not apply to any private sector entities.

“Member States are given substantial room to determine their own policies: Member States may exclude schools, kindergartens and nurseries from the scope, except for their essential administrative functions. What essential functions are, for example enrolment, is up to each Member State to decide.

“Public broadcasters are not within the scope of the Directive.

“The UK successfully argued that intranet and extranet files should fall within the scope of the Directive, without which disabled users would be at a distinct disadvantage.

Burden of compliance, monitoring and reporting

Ombudsman

“Member States will not have to create or nominate an ombudsman: The UK provides its effective remedy judicially under the Equalities Act 2010.

“Overall, it is in the UK’s interest to vote in favour of this Directive. The Directive will have a positive impact on a great number of people: online accessibility is vital to those who suffer from mobility impairments and, notwithstanding other disabilities, a third of Europeans will have poor sight or be partially blind in later life. The use of eGovernment tools reduces administrative burden to businesses and makes life simpler for individuals, all whilst reducing costs to the public purse by moving interactions between citizens and the state online. The UK’s Digital by Default policy puts this into practice. It is paramount, therefore, that these interactions can be used by all: websites and mobile apps should be functional with accessibility software and hardware. This Directive and its subsequent standard will set in place the minimum requirements to ensure that anyone is able to take advantage of eGovernment, regardless of their disability. For the UK, we are ahead of the curve on eGovernment and accessibility and this Directive will help other Member States attain similar levels of accessibility.”

12.14The Minister ends by underlining that:

“I am sharing the English Language version of the Council text currently being translated by jurist-linguists with the Committee … under the Government’s authority and arrangements agreed between the Government and the Committee for the sharing of EU documents carrying a limité marking. It cannot be published, nor can it be reported on in any way which would bring detail contained in the document into the public domain.”

Previous Committee Reports

Thirty-third Report HC 342-xxxii (2015–16), chapter 4 (11 May 2016), Twenty-eighth Report HC 342-xxvii (2015–16), chapter 5 (13 April 2016); Twenty-seventh Report HC 342-xxvi (2015–16), chapter 1 (23 March 2016); Thirty-fifth Report HC 86-xxxv (2012–13), chapter 5 (13 March 2013); and Thirty-second Report HC 86-xxxii (2012–13), chapter 1 (13 February 2013).

Annex: Types of public sector bodies’ websites as referred to in Article 1

i)Income taxes: declaration, notification of assessment;

ii)Job search services by labour offices;

iii)Social-security benefits: unemployment benefits, child allowances, medical costs (reimbursement or direct settlement), student grants;

iv)Personal documents: passports or driving licence;

v)Car registration;

vi)Application for building permission;

vii)Declaration to police, e.g. in case of theft;

viii)Public libraries, e.g. catalogues and search tools;

ix)Request and delivery of birth or marriage certificates;

x)Enrolment in higher education or university;

xi)Notification of change of residence;

xii)Health-related services: interactive advice on the availability of services, online services for patients, appointments.


37 CENELEC is a European regional standards organization that together with its sister organizations CEN, the European Committee for Standardization, and ETSI, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, compose the so-called and known European Standards Organizations (ESOs), which are officially recognised by the European Commission and act as a European platform through which European Standards are developed. See European Standards Organizations (ESOs) for further information.

38 See (34512), 17344/12: Thirty-second Report HC 86-xxxii (2010–12), chapter 1 (13 February 2013) and Thirty-fifth Report HC 86-xxxv (2010–12), chapter 5 (13 March 2013) for the Committee’s initial consideration, including the then Government’s initial reaction.

39 COREPER, from French Comité des représentants permanents, is the Committee of Permanent Representatives in the European Union, made up of the head or deputy head of mission from the EU member states in Brussels. Its job is to prepare the agenda for the ministerial Council meetings; it may also take some procedural decisions. It oversees and coordinates the work of some 250 committees and working parties made up of civil servants from the member states who work on issues at the technical level to be discussed later by COREPER and the Council. It is chaired by the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. There are in fact two committees: COREPER I consists of deputy heads of mission and deals largely with social and economic issues; COREPER II consists of heads of mission (Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary) and deals largely with political, financial and foreign policy issues.

40 See Twenty-seventh Report HC 342-xxvi (2015–16), chapter 1 (23 March 2016) for full details.

41 Council Doc 6169/16.

42 See Thirty-third Report HC 342-xxxii (2015-16), chapter 4 (11 May 2016) for details.

43 Viz: “I am sharing the latest version of the Council text with the Committee (appendix 1). This does not reflect the changes made in the Trilogue negotiations as the official drafting is not yet complete and will not be ready until after the deadline for submitting this letter. This is being shared with you under the Government’s authority and arrangements agreed between the Government and the Committee for the sharing of EU documents carrying a limité marking. It cannot be published, nor can it be reported on in any way which would bring detail contained in the document into the public domain.”

44 Thirty-third Report HC 342-xxxii (2015–16), chapter 4 (11 May 2016).

45 Thirty-third Report HC 342-xxxii (2015–16), chapter 4 (11 May 2016).

46 Which did not reach us until 30 June 2016.




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18 July 2016