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All remaining unequal

The government now prefers to talk of fairness rather than equality. So where does that leave marginalised communities? Jessica Smith and Stuart Speeden report

For a decade, we have seen the development of an equality and human rights framework across Britain that has been concerned with delivering equality of opportunity, fair and equal services, and anti-discrimination.

Although the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has given its support to this agenda through its Equality Strategy published in December 2010, there are growing concerns that the policy framework currently being pursued by the government represents, at best, a weakened commitment and, at worst, a retreat from equality as a central aim of government policy.

Since coming to power, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has introduced a range of policies designed to reform the relationship between the centre and the local and to change the way public services are delivered.

From the Big Society and localism agendas to welfare and health reforms, the pace and scale of change proposed by the government has been striking.

While there has been much debate about the coalition’s approach, relatively little has been said about what current policies mean for equalities issues. Yet the impact of government cuts on the equalities sector is already being felt.

CLES and One North West staged a discussion on equalities issues in Manchester at the beginning of April. One of the key messages to come out was the need to maintain a unified voice on equality.

In March, the Office for Civil Society revealed that no equalities organisation will receive funding as strategic partners; while a 60% cut in funding will result in major changes in the Equality and Human Rights Commission. With government rhetoric moving away from ‘equality’ and towards ‘fairness’, there is a real concern they are slipping off the agenda.

A review of current policy documents reveals a lack of consideration of equalities issues: neither the localism bill nor the local growth white paper, for example, refer to the terms ‘equality’, ‘equalities’ or ‘diversity’. This is symptomatic of a wider shift in government rhetoric.

The Equality Strategy, published in December, is therefore a landmark document and the first clear statement of the coalition government’s stance.

It states: ‘No one should be held back because of who they are or their background. But, equally, no one should be defined simply by these characteristics. We want a society where people are recognised for who they are and what they achieve, not where they are from.’

The Equality Strategy signals a movement away from equality of outcome based policymaking towards that of equality of opportunity; while the government’s ambition to ‘move beyond defining people simply because they’ve ticked a box on a form’ reveals a shift towards a mainstreamed approach and, crucially, a movement away from ‘equality’ towards the vague, relative and immeasurable concept of ‘fairness’.

Not only do current policies fail to acknowledge, appreciate or engage with equalities issues, they may in fact prove to exacerbate inequalities experienced by communities of interest.

Taking five key policy areas, let’s consider the potential implications for equalities issues and the questions they raise.

1. THE LOCALISM BILL

Atiha Chaudry, chair of Manchester’s BME Network, believes there’s an inherent contradiction between funding cuts to community groups and the Big Society. ‘I have been doing “Big Society” for the last 20 years,’ she says. Click the photo to read an interview with Atiha.

The localism bill was published in December with the aim ‘to make the case for a radical shift of power from the centralised state to local communities’. To achieve this ambition, the government hopes to re-localise the running of services with an emphasis on communities taking on services in their neighbourhoods.

This attempt to decentralise and localise runs in parallel to the emerging Big Society agenda whereby communities take greater responsibility for the design and delivery of public services. The bill also introduces greater powers for communities to shape the development of their local area via ‘neighbourhood plans’.

The equality impact studies carried out by government recognise potential negative impacts for black and ethnic minority groups and disabled people. It’s argued these have been mitigated in the Act but there are real dangers that the new planning processes will marginalise people, thereby affecting participation and the provision of services.

Changes to the specific equality duties on local authorities mean equality impact assessment would not be a requirement and there will be a weaker regulation of equality through the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Government Equality Office. There is a major risk that the management of equality at a local level will be weakened.

Also, how do we ensure the needs of marginalised groups are met? The diversification of public service suppliers means the state has less control over the design and delivery of services. With increasing pressures to do more with less, the cuts might mean that service providers focus on those who are successfully accessing their services already, therefore excluding the most marginalised members of the community.

2. THE BIG SOCIETY
The Big Society has emerged as the landmark policy of the government. It views the Big Society as a vision for greater personal, professional and civic responsibility where social problems are solved by the communities they affect; social action is prioritised over state intervention.

But the Big Society raises more questions than answers:

Who has the capacity to participate? As highlighted in a recent publication by the New Economics Foundation, not all individuals have the same capacity to help themselves and to help others. Levels of capacity depend on a range of factors, including: education and income, family circumstances and environment, knowledge and confidence.

Clearly some individuals, particularly those from marginalised communities, will struggle to participate. People with disabilities might face barriers in accessing locations in which decisions are made; while those who do not speak English as a first language, for example, may struggle to engage with the decision-making process.

The barriers that prevent individuals from getting involved in their local communities are often rooted in structural inequalities in society. While people coming together can have a powerful role in solving local problems, this must go hand in hand with structural changes to society and the economy. Not only might the Big Society agenda fail to tackle inequalities, it might actually exacerbate them by failing to meet the needs of marginalised groups.

Can voluntary and community sector suppliers retain their capacity to challenge and contest? The Big Society agenda does potentially present opportunities for VCS equalities organisations to bid to deliver public services that are targeted to the needs and challenges of marginalised groups. However, questions remain as to what impact the shift towards service delivery will have on organisations’ ability to act as advocates for those groups.

3. LOCAL GROWTH WHITE PAPER
The white paper, Local Growth, Realising Every Place’s Potential, was published last year and set out the government’s vision for an economy driven by private sector growth. The paper criticised previous policy for being led by centrally defined targets and is an attempt to shift power and responsibility from the centre and support the localism agenda through local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) and the transition from regional development agencies (RDAs).

The white paper also included the Regional Growth Fund (RGF): £1.4bn of ‘focused investment’ to help address market failure by stimulating enterprise and private sector growth and support areas currently dependent on the public sector.

One of the key issues is how to ensure any opportunities that emerge lead to greater equality. The white paper is underpinned by principles of traditional economic growth, i.e. increasing GVA, and the belief that increased wealth will ‘trickle-down’ to the most deprived people and places. However, experience shows this often does not happen: all too often the opportunities that economic growth brings, such as new jobs, are not enjoyed by marginalised groups – whether that is the older workforce, disabled people or certain ethnic minority communities.

The funding that has been made available through the white paper, the RGF, is being delivered via largely competitive processes. There is a real risk that the allocation of funding will exacerbate spatial inequalities between and within the regions. Moreover, the competitive nature of the fund means it naturally advantages those who are articulate, socially active and whose voices are already heard. Therefore, what opportunity will marginalised communities have to be involved in these emerging processes and mechanisms?

Where does responsibility for equalities now sit? Following the general election, it was confirmed RDAs would be abolished and replaced by LEPs. With their emphasis on driving private sector growth, it is unlikely LEPs will have the same interest in promoting equality across marginalised groups as the RDAs did. Who or what will be responsible for ensuring the legacy of this activity?

4. WELFARE REFORM
Reforming the welfare system, and tackling unemployment and worklessness in particular, has been a key priority of the coalition government. There are two key elements of the reforms: the introduction of the Work Programme; and the move towards a Universal Credit.

How will changes to the benefits system affect marginalised groups? The government has an overall ambition to reduce the cost of welfare to the public purse. One of the steps it’s taking is a crackdown on incapacity claimancy. From this month, claimants will be written to and asked to resubmit their assessments. The government hopes this will identify claimants that can be moved off Employment Support Allowance and onto Jobseeker’s Allowance. Critics have challenged the format of the assessment, while the Disability Alliance has warned it may result in an increase in disability poverty.

There are major question marks over whether the Work Programme provides real incentives for people to move into employment. Doubts remain as to whether it has been designed correctly in terms of the financial incentives available to providers supporting claimants requiring intensive and longer term support.

It only offers a real difference in payment levels once a claimant is placed into employment for 13 weeks, something which might be difficult given the current job market and the complexity of health related barriers that some claimants will need support to overcome. This could encourage cherry picking while truly individualised support is unaffordable. To what extent will the Work Programme be able to tackle structural, entrenched disadvantages in the labour market?

Overcoming these inequalities will require tailored, bespoke and holistic services that understand the barriers that marginalised communities might face in accessing jobs. What is the track record of prime contractors in delivering this? There is also a concern over whether contractors fully understand the diversity of the voluntary and community sector and whether they have knowledge of the activities of equalities focused groups in particular.

5. HEALTH REFORMS
The NHS white paper, Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS, was published last July and set out the government’s long-term vision for the future of the NHS. The most prominent, and indeed contentious, proposals are changes to GP commissioning: in particular, giving clinicians greater control over health budgets with the aim of improving efficiency and effectiveness.

A complex series of impact assessments have been published in relation to the health and social care bill. These documents do not provide an accessible way of assessing equality impact.

But how do we ensure accountability? As a recent briefing by the British Medical Association (BMA) notes, although the white paper stated that GP-led consortia would be legal entities, the health bill is unlikely to be prescriptive about their status, for example, whether they are partnerships, limited liability partnerships, companies or social enterprises. There is clearly a need to ensure clear duties and accountability in any emerging structures: open and transparent decision-making will be vital in order to maintain patient confidence, to protect patients’ interests, ensure equal access and to avoid conflicts of interest.

Devolving powers and responsibilities to GP-led consortia and to local authorities raises concerns about consistency across different geographies. Research by the Race Equality Foundation with black and ethnic minority-led voluntary and community organisations, for example, uncovered wide variations in the relationship between the VCS and the NHS. There are therefore concerns around ensuring the needs of marginalised communities are met and that they have equal access to health services.

And will the changes encourage competition rather than efficiency? A key element of the reforms and the localism agenda more broadly is that of opening up service delivery to a diversity of suppliers. The BMA has expressed concerns that creating a purchaser-provider split and the introduction of payment by results could discourage the type of collaboration between providers that can be so important for meeting the needs of marginalised groups with multiple barriers to improved health.

Moreover, the introduction of any payment by results system inevitably opens up the risk that providers target ‘quick wins’, i.e. people that are already engaged with health providers.

CONCLUSIONS AND NEXT STEPS
The coalition government’s engagement with equalities issues has so far been superficial and the mechanisms for actively pursuing greater equality have been weakened. Instead, its rhetoric of ‘fairness’, based on equality of opportunity over equality of outcome, is coming to the fore. Unlike equality, ‘fairness’ is vague and highly relative: one person’s ‘fair’ is another person’s ‘unfair’, thus making ‘fairness’ difficult to measure; when we consider the government’s dismantling of target setting and monitoring, perhaps this is intentional.

Perhaps of even greater concern is the potential risk that current policies, from the Big Society to health reforms, may in fact exacerbate established inequalities. With this in mind, the role of VCS organisations that meet the needs of, and lobby for, such communities will become increasingly important. Yet, the sector is under threat as a result of public sector spending cuts and the subsequent reductions in local authority grants.

There is a real risk that equalities-focused organisations, which are often smaller and more reliant on volunteers than mainstream organisations, will lack the capacity to deliver public services and as a result get left behind. Moreover, those organisations that are in a position to engage in commissioning and contracting may find that their ability to contest government on issues affecting communities of interest is constrained.

  • This article is drawn from research commissioned by North West Infrastructure Partnership and being delivered by CLPS and CLES to gauge the impact of policy on equalities infrastructure and VCS groups in the northwest, assess its impact on equalities, use case studies to demonstrate the value of organisations and develop a set of equalities indicators. Go to http://tiny.cc/6io94 to read more about the research. If you’d like to discuss the issues raised, contact Jessica on 0161 236 7036, jessicasmith@cles.org.uk or Stuart on 01695 584765, speedens@edgehill.ac.uk
  • Read an interview with Atiha Chaudry, chair of Manchester’s BME Network, here
  • Download the ezine version of this article here.

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