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21 October 2021

By Amanda Bailey – Director, North East Child Poverty Commission

To mark this year’s Challenge Poverty Week in England and Wales, the North East Child Poverty Commission joined forces with Thrive Teesside to host an online regional event on 13th October, on taking a rights-based approach – through the Socioeconomic Duty – to challenging poverty in the region.

Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 – also known as the Socioeconomic Duty – introduced a requirement for public bodies to consider how their policies could increase or decrease inequality that results from socioeconomic disadvantage. Yet, despite being passed by the UK Parliament over a decade ago, this part of the legislation has never been brought into force in England. This joint event considered why, and how, the Socioeconomic Duty should be voluntarily adopted by organisations in the region.

Our panel of speakers was opened by Helen Flynn (Head of Policy, Research and Campaigns at Just Fair), who explained that whilst there are high levels of wealth in the UK, we are one of the most unequal societies in the developed world and this inequality has been exacerbated by Covid – with particularly high levels of inequality evident in the North East. Economic, social and health challenges, such as poor life expectancy, educational outcomes and mental ill health, get worse the more unequal a society is – with higher levels of inequality being as important as overall levels of wealth for outcomes.

Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 – the Socioeconomic Duty (SED) – is similar to Section 149 of the same legislation (which requires public authorities to eliminate discrimination), and, whilst Ministers have not issued the required commencement order for it to take effect in England, there is nothing to prevent local authorities, health authorities, the police and others from voluntarily adopting it as good practice. The SED is a useful tool – providing a framework for strategic decision-making; viewing inequality and its impacts holistically; making reducing inequality of outcomes a priority for everyone; achieving greater consistency of practice across political administrations/institutional knowledge; and supporting the efficient allocation of resources, whilst achieving better outcomes for people.

Just Fair, alongside Thrive Teesside and a number of other organisations, has recently published a 12-page, practical guide for public authority implementation of the SED in England which explains what implementing the SED means in practice, the benefits this can have, with 6 key practical steps local authorities (and others) can take:

  • Meaningful impact assessments to understand the consequences of socioeconomic disadvantage, with a list of questions drawn from the Fairer Scotland Duty – these are a starting point, and should be used at the design stage of policy-making, not after decisions have been made
  • Using data effectively as a tool for decision-making and accountability – the most up-to-date quantitative and qualitative data about the lived experience of residents to shift focus to outcomes
  • Encouraging strong and visible leadership – requiring clear and consistent communication from the top about why this is a priority, ideally with cross-party support, to deliver a culture shift in policy and practice – with staff motivated and proud to be addressing socioeconomic inequality
  • Principles of working in partnership with lived experience of socioeconomic disadvantage – at all stages of policy-making, often requiring authorities to fundamentally rethink they way they engage with residents affected by socioeconomic disadvantage, radically reimagining expertise about how best to address it
  • Engaging with residents, civil society, and VCS organisations – collaborative engagement from the outset, with training on participatory approaches and problem-solving
  • Ensuring access to justice and monitoring impact and compliance – need to provide mechanisms for challenge where a failure to comply with the duty has occurred and socioeconomic disadvantage has therefore increased.

Our second speaker, Tracey Herrington (Manager of Thrive Teesside), consulted with Thrive members ahead of the event – with their clear message being that they want to have their say on how decisions are made so that outcomes are different, with a more positive impact on their lives. They want to impart their knowledge and expertise to address the issues that continue to keep them trapped in a life of very few prospects; and they want a better life, not just for themselves but for their children. Importantly, this process should be an ongoing collaboration, and not a one-off consultation exercise – people are getting tired of telling their ‘story’, and want to share their expertise and knowledge to lead to better outcomes.

The benefits of working in this participatory way are clear – the ‘how’ this is done is more challenging and requires more thought. Quoting from the practical guide on implementing the duty, Tracey explained: ‘it is much more than a duty: it is a commitment, a partnership, an ambition. It is about new ways of working with people…It’s about having honest conversations about the [complex nature] of poverty and inequality and developing transformative policies [or practice] to deal with them.’

Whilst local authorities already ‘engage’ with their residents – through consultations, focus groups, surveys, engagement strategies – these practices all have their limitations, and we need a more participatory approach to address the most pressing inequalities; with those at the sharp end of difficult decisions made by local authorities able to express what their priorities are. And whilst the labels – ‘left behind communities’, ‘disadvantaged areas’ ‘deprived Super Output Areas’ – frequently change, the reality doesn’t; but there is growing recognition of the valuable insight people directly affected by socioeconomic disadvantage have, which should inform and lead to better decisions; decisions which do not result in inequalities widening even further.

Some of the priority concerns regularly raised by Thrive members include bus services being cut; ATMs charging £1.99 to withdraw money; not being able to reach a skip/tip to dispose of bulky rubbish, or facing online-only booking processes and a charge/waiting list for removal so the rubbish piles up; deductions from already limited benefits and not understanding why they’ve been imposed or the end date; the increasing use of online processes/e-forms to access public services; being referred to a Jobcentre support service with the next available appointment in three months’ time; the costs of school uniform and being required by schools to sign-up to digital platforms/apps. Noticeably, nobody raises the benefits of money management or budgeting advice, or being signed up to yet another energy saving or improving financial resilience course – with any savings to be made on an already restricted incomes making limited difference to people’s lives.  Sometimes, initiatives that are intended to address problems further exacerbate people’s challenges – with the widening of the digital divide during the pandemic being an example of this.

We must also recognise that people are more than their ‘lived experience’ – they have a reach into their communities; can connect with those who wouldn’t ordinarily engage with authorities; are problem solvers; and can be researchers – with a wealth of untapped knowledge and expertise. This type of collaborative working does involve a culture shift in the way local authorities function, and it involves recognising that key knowledge about poverty and inequality is held by those directly affected by it. Meaningful involvement must take place from the outset, not as part of a one-off consultation exercise, and real success comes where there is a merging of various areas of expertise; including that held by people with lived experience of an issue.

Cllr Joyce McCarty (Cabinet Member for Inclusive Economy, Newcastle City Council – one of only two public authorities in the region to voluntarily implement the SED alongside the North of Tyne Combined Authority) explained that Newcastle took the formal decision to implement the Socioeconomic Duty back in January 2012, and this was first used in the development of its strategic needs assessment.

The roll-out of Universal Credit – with Newcastle being the first city where this took place – also led to several Financial Inclusion Group workshops to consider all of the issues affecting those least well off in Newcastle, and the importance of promoting income maximisation/benefit checks, and aligning/co-ordinating the support available across the city to make clear that responding to poverty is ‘everyone’s business’ and the council cannot do this work alone.

Newcastle City Council collects extensive data about the impact of decisions and policies, whilst also undertaking Integrated Impact Assessments – rather than Equality Impact Assessments – for major decisions, with the Socioeconomic Duty forming part of that process. For example, £12million has been invested in a Council Tax Support scheme which goes above and beyond the council’s statutory obligations, given the particular impact it knows recent Council Tax increases (including the Government-imposed social care precept) will have on the lowest income households. The Council also passed a motion on social rights and the Socioeconomic Duty in 2019, and will continue to gather and present both quantitative and qualitative data to Government about the impact of policies on local residents.  And this agenda doesn’t stand still – it has been taken further in Scotland with the Fairer Scotland Duty and the work that is being undertaken in Wales around wellbeing, and will be built on further in the region with the new North of Tyne Poverty Truth Commission.

Our panel concluded with Rob Williamson (Chief Executive of Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland), who spoke about the work the Community Foundation has been doing to look at socioeconomic background – or class – in its diversity, equity and inclusion work.  Overall, charitable foundations in the UK don’t have the best record of demonstrating diversity, in terms of how they are governed, run and in the funding they award, with research by the National Association of Charitable Foundations in 2018 finding that the Boards of charitable funders were 99% White, 60% aged 65+, and 68% male. However, this picture is changing with funders increasingly committed to bringing lived, as well as learned, experience to their organisations – and doing this is a fundamental part of the Community Foundation’s DNA as it is critical that the organisation reflects the communities it serves.

For the Community Foundation, this has involved getting better information about its staff and trustees. Whilst already familiar with their data on protected characteristics, it is much harder to obtain this in relation socioeconomic background as, in discussions on diversity, ‘class may be the hardest word’.  As there were very limited examples of existing good practice in this area, the Foundation has drawn on the employers’ toolkit produced by the Social Mobility Commission, which includes a number of standard questions to ask.

The key (heavily tested and researched) question suggested by the Social Mobility Commission is: ‘What was the occupation of your main household earner when you were aged about 14?’ The answers to this question can be grouped into three broad categories – professional, intermediate and working class – to then measure against national benchmarks. Importantly, this question is easy to understand and applies to people of all ages, and from all countries (unlike, for example, questions around free school meals or type of school attended, although these are helpful).

The Foundation now uses these questions for data-gathering on staff, trustees and job applicants, with the information collected highlighting key issues for the organisation in terms of how well the socioeconomic backgrounds of its people reflects the area it serves. It is also working on publishing benchmarks to help steer its recruitment, and as a means of demonstrating visible leadership on this issue and being accountable. And the Community Foundation has removed any unnecessary degree requirements from job descriptions and person specifications; is very clear that it values a range of both lived and learned experience; considers any type of leadership/management experience at any point in a person’s career for the Board; and always publishes the salary for a job, removing a key barrier to application for people from more diverse backgrounds.

Getting comfortable and consistent with language on this issue can be challenging, as is deciding how to benchmark as an organisation (i.e. against the population as a whole, or against organisations of the same type) – and it is important to get good data from organisations the Community Foundation supports, without overloading them with reporting requirements. The Foundation’s commitment to this issue is reflected in its decision to fund the new North of Tyne Poverty Truth Commission – being run by Children North East and co-funded by the Combined Authority and Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It will also shortly be widely promoting information about the range of local organisations working to support people affected by socioeconomic disadvantage this winter which could benefit from donations, or from volunteer support.

Our panel of speakers then responded to questions and comments from those attending the discussion, covering the following issues:

  • The barriers to other authorities in the North East voluntarily adopting the Socioeconomic Duty;
  • The lack of awareness/understanding of the Socioeconomic Duty amongst many authorities;
  • The role of real Living Wage accreditation in meeting the spirit of the SED;
  • How to account for the added layers of disadvantage and deprivation that disabled people face;
  • Whether other authorities should establish a Fairness Commission, as took place in Newcastle; and
  • The role of North of Tyne’s Good Work Pledge and Poverty Truth Commissions in the region in addressing socioeconomic disadvantage.