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)

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.