By Koldo Casla and Jamie Burton
This article was published in Legal Action Magazine
In December 2017, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) announced its own inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster (Following Grenfell: the human rights and equality dimension – statement from the Equality and Human Rights Commission). Unlike Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry, the commission will examine whether the public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities, ‘if in force, would have made any difference to what happened’ (page 5).
The socio-economic duty is contained in Equality Act 2010 s1 and requires government ministers, councils and other 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’. It complements the public sector equality duty set out in s149; however, successive governments post-2010 have declined to bring it into effect.
Nowhere might the socio-economic duty be more relevant than in Kensington and Chelsea. As reported by its MP, Emma Dent Coad, the borough’s male residents enjoy, at 94, the highest life expectancy in the country … as long as they live in Knightsbridge (After Grenfell. Housing and inequality in Kensington and Chelsea: ‘the most unequal borough in Britain’, November 2017). For male residents in the north of the borough, where Grenfell Tower is located, life expectancy drops dramatically to 72, and this figure has been declining since 2010. In the poorest parts of the borough, child poverty is at 58 per cent, against a national average for 2015/16 of 30 per cent (Households below average income: an analysis of the income distribution 1994/95 to 2015/16, supporting data table 4a (Estimated percentage of children in relative/absolute low income, United Kingdom: relative low income – percentage below 60 per cent of contemporary median income after housing costs), Department for Work and Pensions, 16 March 2017). According to Dent Coad’s report, some 4,500 children live below the poverty line in a borough where the median income is £140,000.
Had it been in force, the socio-economic duty would have required Kensington and Chelsea RLBC to consider whether, among others, its policies in relation to council tax and revenue, social housing, homelessness, community cohesion and disaster planning were sufficient to address the enormous inequalities on its doorstep. The EHRC will now tell us whether the human cost of those inequalities might have been mitigated had the council done so.
Of course, the EHRC, just like Moore-Bick, can only make recommendations to government. However, if it does recommend that s1 is brought into force, it will be adding its voice to those who already support the public campaign #1forEquality. Many individuals and organisations (including Unison, Child Poverty Action Group, Women’s Budget Group, the Equality and Diversity Forum and the Runnymede Trust) are behind this campaign, which is run by Just Fair and The Equality Trust, to bring the duty to life.
At the time of writing, 66 MPs from five different parties had expressed their support for Early Day Motion 591 of 23 November 2017, which calls on the government to commence Equality Act 2010 s1. In the meantime, it is encouraging that the Scottish government is to implement the duty (Consultation on the socio-economic duty: analysis of responses, November 2017) and the Welsh administration is giving it serious consideration.
Grenfell Tower is a heartbreaking example of why the UK needs the socio-economic duty to be in force. Together, we must demand that the government implement it without further delay.