On 31st of March 2021, the socio-economic duty will come into force in Wales. It has been a long time coming.
Poverty is a devastating issue in Wales, as it is across the UK. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation puts child poverty in Wales at 29%, Oxfam puts nationwide poverty at almost one in four people – that’s approximately 700,000 citizens getting less than 60% of the average wage. It means people can’t pay their bills or feed their children and could end up evicted and homeless. It prevents people from engaging fully in society and holds people back in life. It has many causes and consequences and often intersects with characteristics like race, disability or age. As a charity who work to tackle inequality, at Diverse Cymru we see it affecting the lives of people in Wales every day.
What impact will the socio-economic duty have on poverty and inequality? Can it make a genuine difference to peoples lives? Part of the answer lies in looking to how the wider Public Sector Equality Duty has worked across the UK since 2010.
When the Equality Act was first introduced in 2010, it brought into law rules around how public bodies should think about their work. The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) requires public bodies to ‘have due regard’ to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between different groups. This involves considering the impact of their policies and services on those with protected characteristics.
As dry as this sounds, at its heart this Duty is about making sure the bodies who make decisions that affect all of our lives think seriously about what impact they might have, often inadvertently, on some people. This could mean a new bus route which makes it more difficult for disabled people to get on the bus, or it could be digitising services in a way that makes it more difficult for some older people to access information about their pension.
For all its flaws (and it does have flaws) the PSED is a tool for ensuring those developing policy and delivering services stop and think about the potential impact of actions, and look to either mitigate or remove discriminatory impact and to foster good relations between groups. However, socio-economic background—put simply, a person’s income, occupation and social background—is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. It is not illegal to discriminate against someone because of their economic background and the PSED does not apply.
Given the significance of socio-economic background on life chances it seems odd that public bodies would not be required to give it consideration. The Equality Act did originally have a provision for a specific socio-economic duty to do just that, but it was never enacted by the UK Government. That is, until the powers to do so were devolved in 2017.
That brings us to 2021, and to Wales. With the Welsh Government deciding to commence the socio-economic duty, public bodies in Wales will have to consider socio-economic background when making their decisions. This feels like a positive move, but most importantly, will it solve the issue of poverty in Wales?
Unfortunately not, but it is an important step forward. The Duty will not be a panacea, and we have seen with the PSED that many public bodies see it as a tick-box exercise with little impact on outcomes. The root causes of poverty are complex and in some ways beyond the scope of the Duty, which is more about reducing inequality of outcome than tacking poverty per se. But done well, the Duty could have a real influence over what polices are put in place, and how services are delivered. Think, for example, about a new transport initiative linking regions to the capital. A business case which once might have assessed that the greatest value for money would be generated by a route which bypassed smaller, poorer towns would now have to consider what impact this might have on those from poorer backgrounds. Perhaps, done well, we could see initiatives which weigh up the impact this would have and decide that it is better for our society as a whole to create greater opportunities for those from poorer backgrounds, even if this costs more in the short term.
The proof, as ever, will be in the pudding, and organisations like Diverse Cymru will need to make their voices heard if we are to ensure the Duty becomes a meaningful tool for policy makers, where they listen to lived experiences and consider the impact they may have on the most disadvantaged.
It has taken a long time and a lot of work to get to this point. Now we must make it count and demonstrate the value of legislation like the Equality Act and the tools it gives us, to make our society a better place for everyone.
– This blog was written by Ben Coates: Diverse Cymru Trustee, Assistant Director @ EHRC, Speaker @ Amnesty International UK.
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