Tough new rules requiring all UK public sector websites to be accessible to users with disabilities - enforced by close monitoring, a public complaints system and fines set at a level high enough to be "effective and dissuasive" against non-compliance - moved a step closer last week after members of the European Parliament voted to beef up a proposed European Directive on Accessibility of Public Sector Bodies' Websites.
The directive was first proposed last year by the European Commission - the EU body which initiates plans for new laws, which then usually (and in this case) have to be passed by both the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers, made up of government ministers from all member states.
A strengthened version of the law, with more than 70 amendments, was backed by MEPs last week by 593 votes to 40, with 13 abstentions. The new version of the law as amended would require EU member states to ensure all public websites are fully accessible, not just those in 12 categories proposed by the European Commission such as social security benefits and enrolment in higher education (see bit.ly/1jF3j99 ).
The parliament also wants the new rules to apply to websites run by "entities performing public tasks", such as energy utility companies and companies providing outsourced public services such as transport or health care. An optional exemption - decided state by state - could be applied to small private firms, employing up to 12 people. Groups and associations of public sector bodies would also be covered by the law as amended, as would "websites developed, procured, maintained or co-financed by public sector bodies or co-financed by EU funds."
The amended law would cover "all versions of those websites... including those designed to be accessed from a mobile device or by any other means. If an application designed by the owners of a website offers services connected to the website, this definition also applies to such an application."
Until such time as the EU may draw up technical web accessibility standards of its own, the level of accessibility required by the proposed directive would be level AA of the international technical standard WCAG 2.0.
MEPs have proposed giving member states one year to comply with the rules for new content and three years for all existing content, with a further two years for live audio content.
The vote constitutes the European Parliament's first reading of the proposed law. The EU Council of Ministers may now accept, reject or attempt to further amend the recommendations. If the Parliament and the council cannot reach agreement following three rounds of negotiation the proposal would be abandoned.
In this case agreement between the bodies is thought by EU officials to be likely, UKAuthority.com has learned, but the negotiation process will be delayed by this year's European Parliament elections, with new discussions between the EU bodies likely to restart in the autumn and final agreement unlikely to take place before early in 2015.
The proposed directive is intended not just to benefit people with disabilities across the EU, but to increase the potential of the internal market for web accessibility products and services, the draft law says. It also notes that "In future, access to information and services provided via websites will be increasingly important for the public in exercising their fundamental rights, including access to employment".
The European Parliament's amendments would also strengthen monitoring of EU bodies' conformance with the law, and enforcement activity should they fail to comply.
Amendment 23 states: "The conformity with web accessibility requirements should be continuously monitored from the initial construction of the website concerned to all subsequent updates of its content. Designating a competent authority in each member state as the enforcement body would be an adequate way to ensure that the conformity with web accessibility requirements is monitored and rigorously enforced... Member states should report every two years on the outcome of the monitoring."
A further amendment, amendment 65, sets out the role and powers of these national monitoring authorities in more detail. It says they would be required to set up a set up a complaint mechanism to enable anyone to notify the body of acessibility failures, and examine any complaints lodged; and that member states would be required to lay down and enforce penalties for non-compliance at a high enough level to be be "effective, proportionate and dissuasive."
Member state governments would also be required to disseminate education on accessibility: Amendment 52 says they should "promote and support web accessibility training programmes for relevant stakeholders, including staff of public sector bodies and entities performing public tasks, to create, manage and update web pages, including their content."
Pictured: The European Parliament in Strasbourg: Copyright Communautés Européennes/European Parliament/Architecture Studio