Features: April 24th, 2009

By Angela Mason

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

There is widespread support for the equality laws and direct discrimination against individuals is diminishing. But tackling the root causes of discrimination is challenging and progress is extremely slow. Continuing at this speed will mean that inequality will continue for the next 100 years. The author describes work in progress to help councils embark on a new improvement journey. The performance framework will rely less on process and observing rules and be more focused on equality outcomes.

The UK has one of the most comprehensive anti-discrimination frameworks in the world and a vibrant ‘equality’ sector. Yet there has never been a government equality strategy and, despite the creation of the new Government Equalities Office, responsibility for equality issues remains split between government departments.

The model for challenging inequality—a framework of individual legal rights, supported by commissions operating as non-departmental public bodies—has undoubtedly achieved significant change. Overt and direct discrimination against individuals is being squeezed out and, despite the constant tirades against ‘political correctness’, there is widespread support for equality laws.

But the approach has limitations. Sir Trevor Phillips’ 2007 publication, Equalities Review, argued that inequality will be entrenched for the next 100 years if we just go on as we are now. At the current rate of change it will take to 2080 to elect a representative House of Commons, until 2085 to close the gender pay gap, and until 2105 to close the ethnic employment gap.

Globalization, diversity and localism

The argument for a new role for local authorities as shapers of place that emerged from the Lyons Report rested, in part, on the increasing diversity between and within communities driven by globalized markets in labour and commodities. The paradox of globalization is that it accentuates local diversity—the most obvious manifestation of these changes in the UK has been the new wave of migration from the eastern European ‘A8’ countries. Nor is any community immune from other well-recognized social changes. The UK population is increasing, becoming older and more ethnically diverse.

It is becoming less and less relevant to think of local government as providers of services to a ‘settled’ community whose lives follow a pre-ordained route. Geoff Mulgan noted in the SFI pamphlet, ‘councils can no longer think of a simple division between minorities and the majority: instead they have no choice but to deal with a quite messy differentiated patterns of assimilation, integration and strongly asserted difference’. The reality of complex and diverse communities requires a paradigm shift in thinking about the relationship between national and local government. Reaping the benefits and dealing with the problems that diversity brings are increasingly less amenable to national interventions and top-down national targets.

Three areas will be crucial for equality and cohesion: knowing communities and equality mapping; local strategic partnerships and sustainable community strategies; community engagement and customer satisfaction. Local government cannot do this on its own—it needs to develop strong strategic partnerships that can work together to build resilient communities, where no one group is left isolated and excluded.

To help councils embark on this new improvement journey, the IDeA is now consulting on a new Equality Framework for Local Government. It will be less reliant on process and tick-boxes and more focused on equality outcomes within the new performance framework.

Reclaiming equality

In shaping our new Framework we have moved away from an overly legalistic definition of equality. Instead, we have used the definition of equality in the Equalities Review publication based on notions of maximizing individual capacity. This definition makes equality an issue for everyone, for white working-class boys as well as young men from African-Caribbean backgrounds, for ‘settled’ communities and ‘newcomers’, the older people as well as the young.

Making new connections

One side-effect of the way in which equality law and policy has developed in the UK is that it has became divorced from the traditional equality agenda that was carried forward in the post-war period by alliances of both liberal and labour movements. The ‘classic’ equality agenda was about economic inequality, social mobility, security against ill-health, disease and ignorance. Equality today has become largely associated with the position of minority groups (in which women are somehow included).

As income inequality grows and social mobility declines, the need to reshape the equality agenda so that it concerns the wider aspirations and needs of every section of the community could not be a more urgent task.

Angela Mason is the National Advisor for Equalities and Cohesion at the IDeA.