The socio-economic duty: a human rights remedy against austerity and inequality

 

This post was published in the blog of The Baring Foundation

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The Scottish government is currently consulting on the implementation of Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, which would require public bodies to consider when making decisions how they would reduce the equalities of outcome resulting from socio-economic disadvantage. Just Fair is one of the organisations leading the #1forEquality campaign to urge the UK government to do the same.

The UK is a very unequal society. While the share of income in the top 20% has remained approximately stable since the early 1990s, the share of the top 1% continuously increased well into the 2000s. There are significant gaps between ethnic groups, with the median income of a family of Bangladeshi origin 35% below that of a white British household. Inequality is most evident in the distribution of wealth: The richest 1,000 people accumulate more wealth than the poorest 40% of households.

The austerity policies implemented by successive UK governments have been strongly criticised by independent international human rights bodies.

In summer 2016 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed serious concernsabout “the disproportionate adverse impact that austerity measures, introduced since 2010, are having on the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights by disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups”.

Last August the Chair of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities described the situation in the UK as a “human catastrophe”: “Each disabled person is losing between £2,000 and £3,000 per year; people are pushed into work situations without being recognised as vulnerable, and the evidence that we [the UN Committee] had in front of us was just overwhelming”.

Like all other countries, the UK is expected to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2015, including the 10th one, whereby governments pledged to ensure equal opportunity and to reduce inequalities of outcome between and within countries.

However, because of its comparatively low investment in education and a regressive tax structure, the UK does not rank highly when it comes to the commitment to reduce inequality.

The UK must change course soon but luckily we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 imposes a duty on public bodies, when making strategic decisions, to consider how they can reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socioeconomic disadvantage.

To take effect, though, this provision requires a formal decision by the Government to activate it, or as is known technically, to commence it.

Despite being at the forefront of the Act, successive governments have failed to bring the socioeconomic equality duty into force. As a result of the Government’s inaction in this regard, in the mentioned 2016 report the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concluded that the UK was not doing everything within its power to tackle discrimination in relation to these rights.

Thankfully the Scottish Government is committed to introducing the socioeconomic duty before the end of the year, and has launched a consultation about what this duty should mean in practice. At the end of this process, Scotland will become the first part of the UK to bring the socioeconomic equality duty to life.

Scottish authorities should learn from the experience of several councils that have incorporated the socioeconomic duty in their strategic planning and integrated impact assessments in spite of the UK Government’s refusal to trigger this duty.

For example, Newcastle City Council’s work to reduce socioeconomic inequalities includes “A Fair Budget for a Fairer City”. At every stage of the budget process, the Council considers the impact of measures on equality and services to the most disadvantaged groups.

Islington Council in London produced a helpful Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) guidance for practitioners and policy makers.

And Newham Council, also in London, developed a three-year Equality and Cohesion Plan using the previous Equality Schemes for Race, Gender and Disability as a starting point.

(You can read more about their processes in Just Fair’s joint response with The Equality Trust to the Scottish government’s consultation.)

Further research is needed to examine the way in which the socioeconomic duty is making a difference in specific council policies and ultimately in the improvement on people’s lives. We in Just Fair are eager to pursue this path because we are convinced that best practices should be studied and made known as widely as possible.

In the meantime, these and other examples could serve as starting points for Scottish authorities and indeed for all other councils devoted to the reduction of inequalities.

The duty to take due regard to the desirability reduction of inequalities of outcome which result from socioeconomic disadvantage can make a big difference. Public authorities must show that their policies are best designed to achieve equality and a higher level of enjoyment of economic and social rights for everyone, especially for the most disadvantaged groups. It is not only a matter of equality and human rights. It is also about transparency, open society and evidence-based policy-making.

Together with The Equality Trust and othersJust Fair is running the campaign #1forEquality to urge the UK government to bring to life the socioeconomic equality duty contained in Section 1 of the Equality Act. This piece is partly based on a joint submission to the Scottish consultation on the introduction of the socioeconomic duty. Just Fair’s work on the socioeconomic equality duty is generously supported by the Baring Foundation as part of a grant to promote a human rights-based approach to social justice.

Koldo Casla, Just Fair.

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