An Open Letter to Baroness Williams of Trafford, Minister for Equalities.
20th March 2018
Dear Baroness Williams,
Our local MP Ellie Reeves recently wrote to you on our behalf regarding the Socio-Economic Duty. As you know the Socio-Economic Duty was originally included in the Equality Act 2010 (passed in the final weeks of the last Labour Government). The key part of the Act stated:
‘An authority…must when making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise its functions, 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.’
However this provision of the Act was not commenced by the new incoming Conservative and Liberal Coalition in 2010 and has not been commenced or brought into effect by the current Conservative Government.
We would like to take this opportunity to respond to a number of points you make in your letter to Ellie Reeves MP.
In explaining why the Coalition and current Government have not commenced the Duty you write that:
‘In upholding its manifesto commitment to reduce regulatory and financial burdens for businesses, the Government maintains that this, as well as several other un-commenced provisions in the Act, potentially raises complex issues of implementation, cost and new burdens on either the private or public sectors.’
We have seen in the tragic case of the Grenfell fire what reducing the regulatory obligations on public and private organisations can lead to. We would urge the Government to learn the lessons of Grenfell that are already quite evident with regard to reducing regulatory ‘burdens’. Indeed even the very language of ‘burdens’ is deeply worrying and reveals a set of priorities that are not conducive to meeting the needs of people. There are indeed ‘costs’ to be counted when the language of ‘burdens’ prevails and these have to do with deepening inequalities, ruined lives and even people dying prematurely and unnecessarily.
In your letter you state that:
‘Creating this kind of catchall duty can too easily become a box ticking exercise designed to minimize the risk of legal challenge that the duty itself has created. In addition, we do not consider the Act as a means of social engineering, which would ultimately have significant cost burdens for the public sector.’
We find it hard to see why legal protections against discrimination based on one’s sex, race, religion or other characteristics do not fall into the category of a ‘box ticking exercise’ (which clearly they should not) but that a socio-economic Duty to reduce socio-economic disadvantage would fall into the ‘box ticking’ category. You are creating a distinction here for which we can see no logical basis.
A similar point can be made in relation to the remark about ‘social engineering’. All policy can be viewed as a form of ‘social engineering’ in fact, in so far as it is trying to bring about new practices or habits or needs in society. For example, the Government’s changes to the National Health Service following the Health and Social Care Act 2012 put a new emphasis on competition within the service. This counts as ‘social engineering’. We are aware however that the term as it is commonly used implies that there is a ‘natural’ order that should not be interfered with by Government legislation. In that sense the term is a rhetorical device designed to delegitimise changes one does not like while the ones that one prefers are not seen as ‘social engineering.’ As with ‘box ticking’ we see no basis here for disqualifying the commencement of the socio-economic Duty.
What counts as ‘social engineering’ notwithstanding, you cite a number of policy initiatives which the Government has undertaken as evidence that progress is being made without the need for a general socio-economic Duty. You identify education in particular as a area where policy initiatives can have positive impact. As educators we have a particular investment and expertise in this sector and agree that it can be important in positively redressing inequalities.
In your letter you cite Department for Education (DfE) statistics that indicate that 1.9 million more pupils are in ‘good or outstanding schools than in 2010.’ In all likelihood you are basing your definition of ‘good or outstanding’ on OFSTED inspections, an organization, by the way, that has become virtually synonymous with ‘box-ticking’ according to many. However we also note that the financial pressures on schools hardly makes them an oasis outside the socio-economic inequalities you would like to address. 8 out of 10 Academy schools are reported to be in deficit and on current trends the sector is facing insolvency, while over a third of all schools were recently reported as being in deficit. Similarly we are underwhelmed by your claim that Government policy is ‘strengthening the teaching profession’ when it is widely reported that teachers are leaving the profession in huge numbers and are not being replaced. Indeed 27,500 teachers who trained between 2011 and 2015, have now left the profession. In Higher Education you point out that there is greater access now than previously, but unfortunately greater access has been combined with soaring personal debt taken on by students thanks to a funding system introduced by the Coalition government and now widely seen as politically unviable.
You also note that the DfE is investing £72 million in deprived areas and ‘continuing to provide the pupil premium worth about £2.5 billion in 2017.’ The £72 million initiative is a tiny amount of money compared to the devastation that de-industrialisation has wreaked across many regions of the country. This education initiative which focuses on teaching ‘life skills’ at best will help people to compete more effectively in the market place for jobs, but does little to address the fact that secure, well paid and satisfying jobs are in short supply in areas which you describe as facing ‘the greatest challenges.’
There is evidence that the pupil premium is having a positive impact in targeting the poorest students. Unfortunately the Premium is also taking a real terms cut of £150 million. In addition, the money is reported as being used by schools to cover cuts in their budgets elsewhere, thereby diluting its impact. We are delighted however that you are investing £137 million through the Education Endowment Fund to ‘expand the evidence base on what works in education for disadvantaged pupils.’ We note that there is plenty of evidence (as well as common sense) that indicates that hungry children do not learn well. Yet the government has just voted to take away free school meals for around one million children from low-income families, something that the socio-economic Duty, might have helped Government to think again about.
We are encouraged however by your following promise:
‘We will, however, keep an open mind for the need to review the Government’s position on this, if new evidence or arguments appear. This Government is committed to creating a country that works for everyone, where success is based on merit, not privilege….’
There is much work to be done in this regard. The Government’s own Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, Alan Milburn, resigned in December 2017 because he felt the government was incapable of tackling the lack of social mobility in the UK.
We think it likely that you must have missed the already existing evidence for the need for a strong all embracing legal framework to address the question of inequality in this country. The literature here is voluminous but we can indicate some useful primers that any Minister of Equalities should be familiar with, such as: