Confronting the Government on Inequalities –pre-conference memorandum to the opposition

Subject:      Labour Party Conference – put equalities back on the agenda

To:               Kate Green MP, shadow minister for women and equalities

Cc:              Stephen Twigg MP, shadow secretary of state for education

Date:          17 September 2013

From:          Thousands of concerned citizens

 

EXTREMELY URGENT

1)   Thank you, Kate, for your fiercely forthright response on 12 September to the government’s review of the public sector equality duty (PSED) ‘This,’ you said, ‘was an unnecessary and wasteful exercise in PR by a government which is turning the clock back on equalities.’

2)   Referring to the committee that produced the report on the PSED you noted it ‘seems to have endorsed a “do as little as possible” approach to promoting equality, at a time when disabled people, women, black and ethnic minority groups are being hit especially hard by this government. At a time when many people are worried about paying their next bill, the government should be concentrating on tackling the inequalities and discrimination that continue to hold people back rather than seeking to water down existing equalities laws.’ What, Kate, are you going to do to follow this up?

3)   Concerns and criticisms similar to yours have been expressed, as you know, on the websites of the TUC, Left Central and the Glasgow-based Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights. ‘The real problem with the duty,’ says the TUC comment, ‘is not “red tape overkill”, as the chair told the Telegraph, ‘but a lack of awareness, resources, staffing, leadership and enforcement capacity to make the duty work properly.’  It says the review should have been ‘a clarion call for more resources and leadership to promote the Duty, but the report instead calls for its further weakening.’

4)   One thing to concentrate on, we suggest, is the committee’s recommendation that guidance ‘must be clearer on the minimum requirements placed on public bodies’, and that therefore ‘the EHRC should produce shorter, more bespoke guidance clearly setting out what is necessary for compliance.’  This sounds, admittedly, as if the committee’s saying public bodies should do as little as possible.  But actually a very high proportion of public bodies are currently doing nothing at all to meet the PSED – nowhere near what is both possible and necessary. In some instances this is probably because they are simply not interested. But in the vast majority of cases it’s because the government has failed to explain to them, in clear and user-friendly ways, what the legislation says and what its purpose is, and how it can be used in cost-effective ways to strengthen and enhance the services they provide.

5)   ‘The right guidance,’ observes the review steering group correctly, ‘has not been available at the right time to enable public bodies to implement the PSED’. Belatedly a certain amount of technical guidance has been published, it mentions, but this has been geared to the needs and interests of courts and tribunals when interpreting the law, and lawyers, advisers, trade union representatives and human resources departments. What is also needed is bespoke guidance that is specific to the circumstances, concerns and culture of each different kind of public body.  Such guidance needs to explain the PSED’s three core concepts – discrimination, equality of opportunity and fostering of good relations, and the general duty of due regard. It needs also to explain how the two specific duties (publishing information and publishing measurable outcome-focused objectives) underpin and give substance to the general duty.  It should take into account the excellent research recently undertaken for the government equalities office (GEO) by NatCen.

6)   It follows, Kate, that we hope you will persuade members of the shadow cabinet to press for implementation of the equality duties in the government departments on which they focus, and on the sectors for which the departments are responsible.  This will involve, though will not by any means be limited to, the provision of bespoke and user-friendly guidance.

7)   We’d like to consider briefly the schools sector in particular, and for this reason are copying this message to your colleague Stephen Twigg.

The schools sector

8)   In the years preceding 2010 the government’s department for education, in its various names, was an equalities trailblazer across Whitehall. It organised, funded and led national strategies for raising the achievement of young people from minority backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, race, religion and language; worked with voluntary sector organisations to produce guidance and training on tackling homophobic bullying and bullying of disabled children; developed a substantial set of web-based training materials on addressing bullying around race, religion and culture; encouraged and assisted the creation of LGBT History Month; commissioned groundbreaking research on disability equality policies in schools; created an exemplary disability equality scheme (DES) for the department itself; organised national conferences which celebrated a holistic approach to equality long before the Equality Act 2010 came onto the statute book; encouraged the Multiverse website for teacher training; set up the London Challenge, drawing on longstanding commitments in London to equality in and through education; routinely published statistical information which permitted researchers and interested members of the public to identify whether and to what extent inequalities in education are narrowing, nationally, regionally and locally; and provided a template for equality impact analysis which was a model for all other public bodies as well.

9)   As a consequence of these and similar projects, there was greater awareness of and commitment to equalities issues throughout the education system, including Ofsted and the initial training of teachers. Several gaps in achievement between different groups were narrowed or, indeed, totally removed. Problems, however, remain. There are still too many exclusions of young people from certain backgrounds; in the young people of Pakistani and African-Caribbean backgrounds are still lagging behind national averages, especially in the midlands and the north; much better provision is still required for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller young people, and for young people with special needs and disabilities; there is still much to be done in relation to girls and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics); there is still a need to address racism and Islamophobia; and despite excellent written guidance for inspectors, there is still insufficient attention to equalities in Ofsted reports.

10)   We have been sad to observe that the Labour opposition has made virtually no protest against the coalition government’s policies and non-policies on equalities, and has not drawn adequate attention to the fact that the Department for Education has failed to implement the specific duties required by the Education Act, and has failed to provide adequate guidance on implementing the Equality Act 2010 in schools. The opposition has criticised many coalition policies on education, certainly, but has seldom if ever pointed out in a high-profile way that the policies are likely to have a damaging impact on equalities.

11)   One of the potentially beneficial policies of the coalition government is the introduction of the pupil premium. Schools are legally required to be transparent and accountable in their use of the grant, and the requirements to publish information and objectives are broadly similar to the specific duties in the Equality Act. But there appears to be widespread non-compliance with these requirements, as also low awareness of the requirements of the Equality Act, reported earlier this year by the Children’s Commissioner for England in a report on school exclusions. Yet the government has not taken action to monitor and improve the situation.

12)   ‘Intersectionality’ is a cumbersome academic term which is unlikely to enter everyday conversations. The essential idea, however, is simple. Each human being lives at the intersection of several different strands of equality and inequality. For example, every young person from a low-income household (that is, every so-called ‘FSM child’) is not only affected by poverty but also is a girl or a boy and has an identity in terms of ethnicity; many have a special educational need amounting to a disability; many have a religious identity which is vitally important to them; all have a sexual identity.  A child’s educational needs cannot, therefore, be appropriately met without reference to distinctive aspects of their experience, identity and reality – they are not ‘all the same’. This is well known and obvious. Yet it is seldom even referred to, let alone emphasised, in the speeches of politicians and the policies that they devise.

13)   Schools should be encouraged and expected to explore intersectionality in their use of the premium grant. Also, they should pay due regard to economic disadvantage in their responses to the Equality Act and in the equality objectives which they pursue.  This is especially crucial in view of the fact that low income frequently intersects with the protected characteristics named in the Equality Act, particularly in relation to ethnicity, religion and disability.

14)   Kate and Stephen, please talk about these issues in your speeches and conversations at Brighton next week, and encourage others to do the same. And after the conference is over, please make sure they are central in the 2015 manifesto. The TUC comment cited above (paragraph 3) says that the PSED report ought to have been a clarion call for more resources and leadership to promote the duty. Yes indeed. Please sound this call at Brighton next week, and beyond. It’s extremely urgent.

_____________________________

Drafted by Bill Bolloten, Sameena Choudry, Gillian Klein, Berenice Miles and Robin Richardson, drawing on thoughts, concerns and ideas from many others. This memorandum really has been sent to Kate Green and Stephen Twigg, and a later article will report on their replies.

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