Equalities review

What is the Equalities Review?

The Equalities Review was set up two years ago by the government in order to provide an understanding of the long-term, underlying causes of disadvantage, make practical recommendations on key policy priorities and inform the modernisation of equality legislation and the development of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). Their final report has just been published but its importance for future policy is yet to be decided.

What does it say about inequality in Britain today?

Its survey of aspects of the equality landscape (where statistical data are available – it is very patchy) presents a very bleak picture, although it does acknowledge that some progress has been made and we are now a more equal society than ‘at any time in living memory’. The report tells us, for instance, that:

  • The average net weekly earnings of Bangladeshi men is half that of white men
  • In 2005, while 42.5 per cent of all pupils received five or more A*-C grades at GCSE, only nine per cent of Gypsy/Roma pupil attained this result
  • The hourly gender pay gap for women is 17 per cent, but for part time women it is 38 per cent
  • Women’s average income in retirement is only 57 per cent of the average for men
  • Disabled people are 30 per cent more likely to be out of work compared to non-disabled people.

These are depressing statistics. The report makes clear that, contrary to popular belief, the situation for many groups is not improving or is improving far too slowly. It estimates, at the current rate of progress, that the time needed to eradicate critical inequalities severely challenges any complacency among policy makers and makes urgent action the only possible response.

For instance, at the current rate of progress the employment penalty will disappear:

  • For mothers with children under 11 – in 2025
  • For disabled people – possibly never
  • For Pakistani and Bangladeshi women – definitely never

Future demographic changes, including increased numbers of people over 65, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities or mixed race, will make the challenges even greater.

The educational statistics are little better, educational attainment gap at Key Stage 2 in English and Maths will be closed:

  • For Bangladeshi pupils in 2010
  • For Mixed White and Black Caribbean pupils in 2014
  • For Pakistani pupils in 2017
  • For Black Caribbean pupils in 2045
  • For Black African pupils in 2053

What steps should be taken in order to alleviate inequality?

The final chapter of the review proposes ‘ten steps to greater equality:

  • Defining equality
  • Building a consensus on the benefits of equality
  • Measuring progress towards equality (linked to the triennial CEHR State of the Nation report)
  • Transparency about progress (required for the public sector and mainly voluntary for the private/voluntary sector)
  • Targeted public sector action on persistent inequalities
  • A simpler legal framework
  • More accountability for delivering equality
  • Using public procurement and commissioning positively
  • Enabling and supporting organisations in all sectors
  • A more sophisticated enforcement regime

What is an equal society? (step one)

The report considers what is meant by an ‘equal society’ and rightly concludes that this should not be measured in entirely economic factors. They therefore define an equal society as:

An equal society protects and promotes equal, real freedom and substantive opportunity to live in the ways people value and would choose, so that everyone can flourish.

An equal society recognises people’s different needs, situations and goals and removes the barriers that limit what people can do and can be.

The report backs up the need for greater equality by considering the economic case, the social cohesion case and the moral case for equality and challenges the attitude that inequality will eventually reduce by itself. It puts a powerful case for the need to tackle inequality and the wider social benefits to be gained by a more equal society.

Building a consensus (step two)

Only if a broad consensus can be built up on the benefits of equality to both government and civil society will long term changes to correct inequalities be made. The report has set out the extent of inequality in society and so it recommends that both national and local government have a role in providing leadership for the case for equality.

Measuring inequality (step three)

In order to measure the degree of equality, or inequality, the report suggests the use of an ‘Equality Scorecard’ that can measure ten dimensions of equality:

  • Longevity,
  • Physical security
  • Health
  • Education
  • Standard of living
  • Productive and valued activities
  • Individual, family and social life
  • Participation, influence and voice
  • Identity, expression and self-respect
  • Legal security

The report suggests that such a definition should be used to influence the development of the CEHR’s triennial State of the Nation report.

Transparency about progress (step four)

The report recommends not only the better collection of data but also the better use of data that is collected. Data should be made more transparent and widely available.

Targeted action on persistent inequalities (step five)

The government should immediately identify and target persistent inequalities as part of their existing equality duties (in respect of gender, race and disability). Thereafter a systematic approach needs to be adopted by public authorities to regularly review the impact of their policies, programmes and core activities.

A simpler legal framework (step six)

The report calls for simpler, more outcome focussed law – a major part of which should be a new public sector duty to work towards greater equality. A new single Equality Act is recommended as well as a new integrated equality duty to cover all the grounds for discrimination.

More accountability for delivering equality (step seven)

Individual organisations and leaders should be more accountable for delivering equality outcomes; these should be reflected in the government’s public service agreements that are set by the government as part of its spending reviews. The report also recommends the setting up of a Parliamentary equalities select committee to regularly review progress. Equality should be part of every organisation’s performance management framework.

The media’s role in leadership and commentary on equality issues is recognised. The report calls for the Press Complaints Commission to review its widely criticised complaints mechanisms in particular, so that complaints about prejudice and stereotyping of groups can be brought within their jurisdiction. As the Press Complaints Commission is run by the press for the press this is not an area where the government can take action, although they would not be without influence.

Public procurement and commissioning (step eight)

Public procurement and commissioning should be used in order to hold more organisations accountable for achieving greater equality; further use should be made of this tool in order to feed equality goals further down the supply chain into the private sector. They recommend incorporating within the new public sector duty a specific requirement that public bodies use procurement as a tool with which to achieve greater equality.

Employer engagement (step nine)

The report recognises that in order to gain greater employer engagement and commitment to equality a stronger business case for the benefits of equality needs to be made.

The CEHR should have a role in providing targeted support for employers by way of light touch guidance, advice on good practice and factual information on the local population make up. Whilst they see the CEHR playing a ‘strategic role’ here they see other national organisations as taking on the role of direct tailored support. To further this they recommend that the CEHR convene a ‘working group of advice-giving organisations, to develop and establish a coherent network of advice sources’ which they suggest could operate under a kite-marking system. This appears to ignore or at least downplay the CEHR’s own advice giving function.

Positive action or balancing measures (step nine)

The report recommends some positive action but it is unclear about the nature of what it is calling for. They seek to be more pro-active in creating opportunities for people from under-represented categories but say that ‘we are not recommending positive discrimination’. It is clear that they wish to recommend more positive action than is currently permitted, but further consideration of what will be appropriate and permissible under European law is needed.

Enforcement and redress (step ten)

Despite asserting that the CEHR needs to play a ‘more dynamic role in enforcement’ than has been possible for equality commissions in the past, the report recommends that the CEHR’s role should be in overseeing enforcement rather than undertaking enforcement itself, suggesting that ‘public sector inspectorates’ should take over part of this role.

The role of individual enforcement or casework is completely omitted or ignored.