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 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.

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