In spite of all the talk about ‘levelling up’ and the need to address poverty and inequalities, public bodies in England are still not required to assess policies against their impact on people experiencing socio-economic disadvantage. That is because successive governments have chosen not to commence the socio-economic duty contained within Section 1 of the 2010 Equality Act.
If enacted, the duty would require government ministers, councils and other public bodies to have due regard to the ‘the desirability of exercising [their functions] in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage’.
Since 2010, public spending cuts and welfare policies such as the benefit cap have disproportionately impacted people experiencing socio-economic disadvantage. During the same period, councils have had to contend with unprecedented budget cuts, forcing them to make hard choices about which services to retain and which services to cut.
Had the socio-economic duty been in place, the UK government would have been unable to evidence how its policies and budget decisions were fair and necessary, and how they align with international human rights obligations. Local councils would have been more strongly placed to understand the unintended consequences of their budgetary decisions on people on low incomes in their area.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the consequences of socioeconomic inequalities into sharp focus, highlighting the intersecting nature of inequalities and the way socio-economic disadvantage compounds inequalities across gender, ethnicity, disability, and sexuality. The Runnymede Trust has argued that failure to enact the duty has worsened inequalities during the pandemic. If the duty had been in force, there would have been an onus on central government and other public bodies to tackle issues affecting people experiencing poverty – such as access to laptops for children in low-income households – head on.
In the absence of a national policy agenda focused specifically on tackling disadvantage caused by socio-economic inequality, whether by reducing poverty or addressing socio-economic inequalities more broadly, local authorities increasingly want to understand what tools and mechanisms are available to them and their partners to address the consequences of socio-economic disadvantage. Some Labour-run councils in England are taking it upon themselves to voluntarily adopt the socio-economic duty. They are choosing to take socio-economic status into account when implementing policies and developing strategies. They see voluntary adoption of the duty as complementing anti-poverty, inclusive economy and equalities approaches.
At a time when councils continue to be squeezed financially, the duty can support local authorities to protect low-income residents from the direct or unintended consequences of budget cuts, and help shape policies and strategic approaches in a way that maximises positive outcomes for residents experiencing poverty.
A guide on effective implementation of the duty developed by Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA) and Just Fair in June, sets out the approaches councils need to take to ensure adoption has maximum impact. Councils should formally incorporate socio-economic disadvantage, alongside the existing nine protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010, in equality impact assessments, equality plans, and the broader decision-making process and strategies.
Adoption of the duty should involve a recognition of the value of engaging with people with lived experience of socio-economic disadvantage and a commitment to finding new and sustainable ways to incorporate diverse expertise into policymaking. Knowledge about how best to tackle poverty and inequality is held by those in communities who have lived experience of socioeconomic disadvantage.
To be effective, implementation of the duty should enjoy strong and visible commitment from senior leaders (at both a political and officer level) as part of a broader cultural shift that embeds the priority to tackle socioeconomic disadvantage at all levels within the organisation. A commitment to tackling socio-economic disadvantage should survive changes in political administration, council leadership, corporate strategy and national policy agendas.
If taken further, so that adoption of the duty embraces service design and delivery, it could have a transformative effect on the way that services are delivered to people with the greatest needs. It opens up the opportunity to extend adoption of the duty beyond the local authority into other public services such as the police, schools and GP practices.
This agenda could help shape any income Labour government’s approach to inequalities, both in terms of helping to make the case for enaction of the duty and in respect of how it should operate in practice. Whilst the Tories talk of levelling up without substance, Labour could commit, when in government, to ensuring that the needs of people experiencing poverty are taken into account across all government departments when designing and implementing policy. Enaction of the duty by an incoming Labour government would give England parity with Scotland and Wales, where devolved governments have chosen to introduce the duty themselves.
Labour councils across England are working with partners to address poverty and inequalities locally, in the context of a very challenging set of circumstances created by central government. Voluntary adoption of the socio-economic duty would complement and strengthen these efforts. If implemented in the way GMPA and others are calling for, the duty offers a powerful tool for local councils to take the initiative and help maximise local efforts to address poverty.