The socio-economic duty: A powerful idea hidden in plain sight in the Equality Act

Koldo Casla in Oxford Human Rights Blog

Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 asks public authorities to actively consider the way in which their policies and their most strategic decisions can increase or decrease inequalities. I am talking about the socio-economic duty. However, successive governments since 2010 have failed to commence it, to bring it to life in technical terms, which means that public authorities are not technically bound by Section 1. Continue reading “The socio-economic duty: A powerful idea hidden in plain sight in the Equality Act”

Inequality Is Not Inevitable: Campaigners Urge MPs To Support Socio-Economic Rights

Imogen Richmond-Bishop in Rights Info

In the run-up to the May 2019 local elections, Just Fair along with Poverty2Solutions are approaching candidates for councillor and mayoral positions across the North East of England to ask them to be #1ForEquality by promoting the implementation of Section 1 of the Equality Act and socio-economic rights.  Continue reading “Inequality Is Not Inevitable: Campaigners Urge MPs To Support Socio-Economic Rights”

Tackling Socio-Economic Inequality In The UK Is An Urgent Human Rights Issue

By Imogen Richmond-Bishop

This article was published in Rights Info

The UK is one of the most economically unequal societies in the global North. Inequality affects all people within society regardless of their income. Inequality can harm an individual’s physical and mental health, self-esteem, happiness, sense of trust and civic participation.

On average people in deprived neighbourhoods in the UK live seven years less than people in wealthier neighbourhoods. Unequal societies have less social mobility as people are not able to reach their full potential, and these societies also tend to have higher crime rates.

What Does Socio-Economic Inequality In The UK Look Like?

Socio-economic inequality relates to disparities that individuals might have in both their economic and social resources that are linked to their social class. These disparities include but aren’t limited to their earnings, education, and/or income.

When analysing the UK’s performance against Sustainable Development Goal 10, which targets a reduction in inequalities, Just Fair found that that the UK was doing poorly in the majority of criteria where there is enough data to measure progress.

Groups and individuals that face discrimination because of a shared characteristic, such as gender, race or disability, are significantly over-represented amongst the most socio-economically disadvantaged.  This is backed up by the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s impact assessment into recent tax and welfare reform that shows that those who are already the worst off have been the most affected by these changes.

For example women on average lost £400 per year compared to a £30 average loss experienced by men. Black and minority ethnic minority households, families with at least one disabled member and lone parents (who are overwhelmingly women) are also amongst those who have suffered disproportionately from these changes.

Inequality is marked by an uneven distribution of wealth. The Equality Trust highlights that the UK’s richest 1,000 people are wealthier than the poorest 40% of households. This wealthiest 1,000 saw their collective worth grow by £2,615 for every second of 2016.

Wealth is also unequally distributed across the regions. In 2016 the top 10 local areas in terms of gross disposable household income per head were in London or the south east. When you look at median household total wealth, again London and the south west come out at the higher end of the scale with the north east coming out on the bottom.

Why Socio-Economic Inequality Is A Human Rights Issue

Socio-economic inequality undermines our ability to access our human rights. The United Nation’s Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has made clear that socio- economic status can be seen as a ground of discrimination.

They have said: “Individuals and groups of individuals must not be arbitrarily treated on account of belonging to a certain economic or social group or strata within society. A person’s social and economic situation when living in poverty or being homeless may result in pervasive discrimination, stigmatization and negative stereotyping which can lead to the refusal of, or unequal access to, the same quality of education and health care as others…”

Inequalities in income can lead to inequalities in power and a situation where those with the most wealth or highest income are better able to realise their human rights. This inequality can present itself in a number of ways.

For example, in a local authority that has been forced to reduce its provision of adult social care due to cuts to their budget made by central government, one elderly person may be able to afford to pay for the additional services to address their needs by financing it through their own resources.

However another person may not have the financial ability to be able to pay for the additional care that they need meaning they might see their health and overall well-being decline. Furthermore it was recently announced that thousands of pensioners on the lowest incomes will soon be up to £7,000 a year worst off after the Department for Work and Pensions stated that it was going to be implementing a change to pensioners welfare entitlement. When this drop in income is combined with reduced services provided by local authorities you can see how it is essential for the government to conduct cumulative impact assessments on its policies to better mitigate their effect on increasing socio-economic inequalities.

Inequality in all its forms was at the forefront of the recent visit of the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Phillip Alston. In his interim report he was scathing in his criticism of UK policies that have contributed to a rise in poverty rates and the rampant inequality that he saw throughout his visit to the UK.

What Can Be Done To Tackle Socio-Economic Inequality?

“We live in unequal societies but inequality is not inevitable. It is the product of government decisions, actions and omissions that ignore human rights laws and principles,” Koldo Casla – Just Fair policy director.

Government could start by assessing the cumulative impact of tax, social security and public spending decisions since 2010, reverse the benefits cap, remove the two-child limit for all families, and crucially restore the link between social security entitlements and the actual cost of living.

Social class is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, but Part 1contains what is known as the socio-economic duty. This duty would place an obligation on public authorities to have due regard to “the desirability of exercising (their functions) in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage”.

In Scotland, the equivalent of the socio-economic duty – the Fairer Scotland Duty – came into force in April  2018, and in Wales the Welsh Government announced at the end of 2018 that it is going to examine how the duty could help to tackle poverty, with Welsh Minister for Children Huw Irranca-Davies stating, “we cannot and will not be silent as the UK Government’s damaging tax and welfare reforms threaten to plunge 50,000 more Welsh children into poverty and increase levels of deprivation for our most vulnerable families.”

There are currently 78 MPs from five different parties and no less than70 academics and organisations, including Unison, Just Fair, Amnesty International UK and Child Poverty Action Group, who are all calling on the government to enforce the socio-economic duty as part of the #1ForEquality campaign.

Today Wales could make a real difference for equality

By Koldo Casla and Imogen Richmond-Bishop

The Plenary of the National Assembly for Wales is going to debate today a joint report on equality and Brexit presented by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee and the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee.

In their report both committees recommend the Welsh government to bring the socio-economic duty to life and we urge Assembly Members to give serious consideration to this recommendation.

Established in Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, the socio-economic duty requires public authorities to actively consider the effects that their policies may have on increasing inequalities both nationally and locally.

Even though it has been in the statute book for more than eight years, unfortunately the UK government has not triggered the duty yet. However, Section 45 of the Wales Act 2017 empowers the government to bring it to life in Wales. Similar powers were bestowed on Scotland, where the duty is in force since last April via the ‘Fairer Scotland Duty’.

Research by Just Fair earlier this year identified 13 good practices by seven local authorities in England that were inspired by the socio-economic duty.

That is how we know that bringing the duty into effect would give Welsh authorities a powerful lever to address socio-economic inequalities.

When implemented, the socio-economic duty will require councils, ministers and statutory bodies to be more transparent. Authorities will have to demonstrate how they have taken into account the way their budgets and other decisions of strategic importance can affect material inequalities. The whole point is to give back control to citizens so they can hold public authorities to account.

There is abundant evidence that shows that inequality is bad for society as a whole. It harms physical and mental health, self-esteem, happiness, sense of trust and civic participation, and it restricts the resources available to support public services. This is of the highest importance in Britain, one of the most unequal countries in Europe in terms of income and wealth but also in terms of regional disparities.

The damage of inequality is painfully tangible in Wales. The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently updated its Is Wales Fairer? report. It shows that reductions made to in-work and out-of-work benefits have hit particularly hard in Wales, where more people rely on welfare than in England and Scotland. The cuts have pushed many women, disabled people and ethnic minorities into poverty. Despite lowering unemployment levels, work no longer guarantees an adequate standard of living for everyone. Educational attainment is still too closely correlated with the socio-economic background, which makes social mobility a hollow promise for too many families. And adults living in most deprived neighbourhoods and towns have a lower life expectancy than those in wealthier areas, with a nine-year difference for men and seven for women.

Evidently, these expressions of inequality are not simply the fault of Welsh authorities. Inequality and the relative poverty it creates are the result of a multitude of political decisions made in London and Brussels… but also in Cardiff in your local town hall as well. Inequality is also the by-product of the economic system we live in, from which a few benefit significantly more than most. But one thing is to admit that inequality responds to complex causal links, and quite another is to pretend the Welsh government and local authorities should not do something about it. They can and must address the inequalities that derive from socio-economic disadvantages even if they are not directly responsible for the existence of those disadvantages.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 79 MPs of five different parties (Early Day Motion 591), and more than 70 civil society groups are calling on the UK and the Wales governments to show their commitment to equal opportunities by supporting the socio-economic duty. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, met yesterday with government officials, AMs and civil society in Cardiff; we would not be surprised if the socio-economic duty was one of the issues raised by Professor Alston.

By triggering the socio-economic duty of the Equality Act, Wales would join Scotland in setting an example for public authorities in England, and beyond. The duty is a unique feature of the legal system in these islands. It simply does not exist anywhere else. By activating it, Wales and Britain as a whole can set an international example. It is time to show that, in or out of the European Union, Wales will not leave anyone behind.

(First published in Left Foot Forward)

Just Fair’s Submission to the Women and Equalities Committee: ‘Enforcing the Equality Act: The law and the role of the EHRC’ Inquiry

The socio-economic duty offers a powerful lever to reduce the damaging gaps that harm us all. Equality defines a fair society. It should not be a postcode lottery. We urge the Women and Equalities Committee to consider recommending the Government to bring to life the socio-economic duty (Section 1) and the remaining uncommenced clauses, in particular the principle of intersectionality (Section 14).

You can read the full submission here.

Local authorities are paving the way to tackling inequality

By Koldo Casla

This article was originally published by LGiU, the local democracy think tank.

The Equality Act 2010 was a major step forward. It protects against direct and indirect discrimination in public services and harassment in the private sphere, including the workplace. Nine characteristics are protected within it: Age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.

Although social class is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, Section 1 contains what is known as the socio-economic duty.

This duty would require public authorities to have due regard to “the desirability of exercising (their functions) in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage”.

However, sucessive governments since 2010 have failed to bring it to life, which means that public authorities are not technically bound by Section 1.

The duty could have made a difference in the case of Grenfell, for example. Had it been in force, it would have required the Kensington and Chelsea Council to consider whether its policies in relation to council tax, social housing, homelessness and disaster planning were adequate to address the enormous inequalities in the borough.

Section 1 of the Equality Act is technically not binding for public authorities in England, but some councils are showing what the duty could look like in practice.

Just Fair interviewed 20 council representatives, senior officers and voluntary sector groups in Manchester, Newcastle, Oldham, Wigan, Bristol, York and the London Borough of Islington.

Respondents used different frames and agendas to articulate their policies: Fairness, inclusive growth, impact assessment, equality budgeting, economic disadvantage, social exclusion… But all of them were clear that austerity had prompted them to react both because of the way Universal Credit and other welfare reforms were affecting their residents and because of the limitations on local government funding.

All seven councils show a combination of a) visible leadership, b) cultural shift, c) meaningful impact assessments, d) data transparency, and e) engagement with residents and the voluntary sector.

It is vital that someone senior, the leader or an executive member of a local authority, champions the council’s work, ideally with local cross-party support. For example, York Council has created a Financial Inclusion Steering Group, which has executive member and senior officer engagement and distributes £300,000 of funding in crisis loans and financial inclusion initiatives.

Fulfilling a cultural shift means that the commitment to tackle socio-economic disadvantage must trickle down all levels of decision making to ensure that election results or staff turnover, significantly high in recent years, do not compromise the council’s work. All the authorities in this research have implemented the living wage and several respondents referred to the local fairness commission as a trigger of the council’s work on inequalities.

Systematic and transparent assessments of the cumulative impact of political decisions is of paramount of importance. The integrated impact assessments in Newcastle have directly influenced spending and revenue priorities, not the least of which are the continuing funding of the welfare rights service and council tax reduction schemes for some households.

To be transparent and accountable, data must be available. All seven local authorities use a wide range of data on residents’ standard of living as well as a significant amount of sources shared with health services and other stakeholders. In Bristol, for instance, 50 local indicators give an overall assessment of the wellbeing of citizens and communities in terms of sustainability, employment, overwork and deprivation.

Finally, residents and organised civil society can be both critical challengers and creators of innovative ideas. Manchester City Council cited an understanding of socio-economic disadvantage as being a key criterion in the allocation of local grants to the voluntary sector.

Further research is required to assess their effectiveness most critically, but these seven councils present 13 case studies of potentially good practice that deserve to be explored, tested and developed in other parts of the country.

In the near future, Scotland will provide other valuable examples through the new Fairer Scotland Duty, which is the name of the socio-economic duty north of the Border, in force since April.

Inequality has increased for those in the bottom half since 2011 and, if the forecast of the Office for Budget Responsibility is accurate, things are likely to get worse in the coming years. At this pace Britain will fail to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goal No. 10, an international pledge to reduce inequality.

That’s why a number of voices are speaking up urging the government to enforce the socio-economic duty at once. We are hearing the call from 78 MPs from five different parties, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, two committees of the National Assembly for Wales, and no less than 70 academics and organisations, including Unison, Amnesty International UK or Child Poverty Action Group.

The socio-economic duty offers a powerful lever to reduce the damaging gaps that harm us all. Equality defines a fair society. It should not be a postcode lottery.

Could the socio-economic duty be a way to reduce inequalities in the UK?

This piece was published in UKSSD blog. (Image credited to UKSSD)

The UK Government committed to reducing inequalities through Sustainable Development Goal 10. Three years later things aren’t on track but is the socio-economic duty the solution we need? Koldo Casla from Just Fair explains. 

By signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, among other things, the UK Government committed to reducing inequalities.

The SDGs, with their 17 Goals and 169 Targets, set the world on a trajectory where we have eradicated poverty, reduced inequalities, halted the loss of biodiversity and combatted catastrophic climate change. Some call them an action plan for the world. But as our chapter on SDG 10 in Measuring up shows, three years later the UK’s chances of hitting the targets on reducing inequalities by 2030 are not looking too good.

Three reasons why the UK will struggle to reduce inequalities

  1. Between one in five and one in four people earn less than 60% of the median income in the UK. This has barely changed since 2010, and things are not likely to improve as income inequality is projected to rise in the coming years.
  1. Although wealth inequality (the ownership of assets, including property) contracted between 1997 and 2007, it is now going up as a result of the decreased access to home ownership and because land values are growing faster than the economy. The richest 1,000 people are wealthier than the poorest 40% of households.
  1. Tax and social security cuts introduced since 2012 have had a particularly severe effect on people on low incomes. Black and ethnic minority households, families with at least one disabled member, and lone parents (who are overwhelmingly women) have suffered disproportionately. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as a result of the tax and welfare reforms households in the bottom 20-30 per cent have lost more than twice as much as those in the top 20 per cent. At this pace, in four years from now 1.5 million more children will live in poverty.

The UK has a strong legal framework to prevent discrimination, we just need to use it Continue reading “Could the socio-economic duty be a way to reduce inequalities in the UK?”

Tackling Socio-economic Inequalities Locally

1Just Fair report on Good practices in the implementation of the socio-economic duty by local authorities in England.

The extent of wealth and income inequality is of widespread concern in England; yet there is no national policy agenda focused specifically on tackling disadvantage caused by socio-economic inequality, whether by reducing poverty or promoting inclusive growth. Since the Grenfell Tower disaster in June 2017, the focus on the national picture has extended to local authorities.

This research explores how a selected number of English local authorities are tackling socio-economic disadvantage. It also examines how a legally enforceable duty in the form of section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 would support this endeavour.

This research involved desktop research and interviews with (among others) 20 individuals in seven local authorities: the Metropolitan Boroughs of Manchester, Newcastle, Oldham and Wigan; the Unitary Authorities of Bristol City and City of York; and the London Borough Council of Islington. Contact was purposefully pursued with authorities that would provide examples across council type, geographical location and political control.

Full report

The duty on public authorities to reduce socio-economic inequality needs to be brought into force

LAG-circle-150x150This article was written by Koldo Casla and Jamie Burton and published in Legal Action Magazine.
In December 2017, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced its own inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster (Following Grenfell: the human rights and equality dimension – statement from the Equality and Human Rights Commission). Unlike Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry, the commission will examine whether the public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities, ‘if in force, would have made any difference to what happened’ (page 5).
The socio-economic duty is contained in Equality Act 2010 s1 and requires government ministers, councils and other public authorities to have due regard to ‘the desirability of exercising [their functions] in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage’. It complements the public sector equality duty set out in s149; however, successive governments post-2010 have declined to bring it into effect.
Nowhere might the socio-economic duty be more relevant than in Kensington and Chelsea. As reported by its MP, Emma Dent Coad, the borough’s male residents enjoy, at 94, the highest life expectancy in the country … as long as they live in Knightsbridge (After Grenfell. Housing and inequality in Kensington and Chelsea: ‘the most unequal borough in Britain’, November 2017). For male residents in the north of the borough, where Grenfell Tower is located, life expectancy drops dramatically to 72, and this figure has been declining since 2010. In the poorest parts of the borough, child poverty is at 58 per cent, against a national average for 2015/16 of 30 per cent (Households below average income: an analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 to 2015/16, supporting data table 4a (Estimated percentage of children in relative/absolute low income, United Kingdom: relative low income – percentage below 60 per cent of contemporary median income after housing costs), Department for Work and Pensions, 16 March 2017). According to Dent Coad’s report, some 4,500 children live below the poverty line in a borough where the median income is £140,000.
Had it been in force, the socio-economic duty would have required Kensington and Chelsea RLBC to consider whether, among others, its policies in relation to council tax and revenue, social housing, homelessness, community cohesion and disaster planning were sufficient to address the enormous inequalities on its doorstep. The EHRC will now tell us whether the human cost of those inequalities might have been mitigated had the council done so.
Of course, the EHRC, just like Moore-Bick, can only make recommendations to government. However, if it does recommend that s1 is brought into force, it will be adding its voice to those who already support the public campaign #1forEquality. Many individuals and organisations (including Unison, Child Poverty Action Group, Women’s Budget Group, the Equality and Diversity Forum and the Runnymede Trust) are behind this campaign, which is run by Just Fair and The Equality Trust, to bring the duty to life.
At the time of writing, 63 MPs from five different parties had expressed their support for Early Day Motion 591 of 23 November 2017, which calls on the government to commence Equality Act 2010 s1. In the meantime, it is encouraging that the Scottish government is to implement the duty (Consultation on the socio-economic duty: analysis of responses, November 2017) and the Welsh administration is giving it serious consideration.
Grenfell Tower is a heartbreaking example of why the UK needs the socio-economic duty to be in force. Together, we must demand that the government implement it without further delay.
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The government are ignoring their obligation to measure inequality – parliament must compel them to do so

This article was featured on Labour List:

The UK is one of the most economically unequal countries in the  developed world, and tax, public spending and social security policies in the austerity years only worsened the problem.

Since 2010, the Labour Party has examined the impact of tax and social benefits on different groups. The model developed by Yvette Cooper shows that the savings have come from services predominantly used by women, causing them to bear the brunt of such cuts to the tune of 86%.

While the Government fails to conduct the necessary impact assessments, others are providing evidence of the disproportionate effect that some policies are having on women, children, persons with disabilities or BAME families.

Last November, for example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission demonstrated that the costs of tax, public spending and social security cuts have been borne overwhelmingly by the poor. While everyone has lost some money after the reforms, not everyone has lost the same.

Net cash losses for the bottom 40% have been about £1,500 per year, while for the top 20% the average cash loss has been £200. On average, BAME households have paid a higher price than white households. Families with at least one member with a disability have bit hit particularly hard. Single parent households, more than 80% of whom are headed by women, have suffered disproportionately. In fact, women have been more negatively affected by tax and welfare reforms in all income brackets.

In light of this dire reality, 126 Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs have called for an immediate equality assessment of all government policies.

In particular, Labour has tabled an amendment to the Finance (No. 2) Bill 2017 to require the Chancellor to review the equality impact of the Budget, including the way in which tax changes and benefit cuts affect households at different income levels.

We welcome this initiative. We desperately need policies that are both transparent and effective in ensuring real equality and an adequate standard of living for everyone.

The good news is that we already have the necessary tool in the statute books: the Socio-economic Duty.

Despite being in the forefront of the Equality Act (Sections 1-3), successive governments since 2010 have failed to bring the Duty to life.

The Socio-economic Duty requires public authorities, “when making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise its functions [to] have due regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage”.

Led by Just Fair and The Equality Trust, and supported by 62 academics and civil society groups (including Unison, Child Poverty Action Group, Women’s Budget Group, the Equality & Diversity Forum and Runnymede Trust), the campaign #1forEquality intends to bring the Socio-economic Duty to life.

It is encouraging to see that the Scottish Government will soon implement it.

At the time of this writing, 61 MPs from five different parties have expressed their support for the Early Day Motion 591, tabled by Harriet Harman, calling on the Government to commence the Socio-economic Duty at the UK level.

That is why we very much hope that all Labour MPs, and indeed MPs from other parties too, will rally behind EDM 591 to urge the Government to walk the walk towards that country that truly works for everyone.

Dr Koldo Casla is Policy Director at Just Fair and Dr Wanda Wyporska is Executive Director of The Equality Trust.