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The next steps for equalities?

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

We like a guest post and today’s is one based on cold hard research.

The topic is one that local authorities have long struggled with; that of equalities or more precisely how we, as the council, can use our role to make a real difference to the lives of those who are disadvantaged or discriminated against. This post looks at what can be done beyond what they describe as the ‘standard 6’ actions we all know and recognise.

So, without further ado enjoy today’s post from Joy Warmington from Brap (@JWmusesthis on the twitter); it provides good food for thought.

Here’s a quick question for you. For every £100 that a man working in Birmingham earns, how much do you think a woman earns? Ninety five pounds? Ninety pounds? Maybe as low as £85?

We’ll reveal the answer at the end, so while you’re mulling that here’s another one. The unemployment rate for White people in Birmingham is about 9%. What’s the rate for Black people? If you doubled 9%, try again. The answer is actually three times higher – 26%. The unemployment rate for Pakistani and Bangladeshi residents is similarly out of kilter, currently standing at 18%. But here’s the really interesting thing. Back in 2004 the White unemployment rate was 6% while the Black rate was 18% – again three times higher. Over the course of a decade, despite all its strategies and plans, the city was unable to reduce this stark inequality.

Why is this? Well, it’s not just Birmingham that’s been asking these questions. A number of cities – from Plymouth to Sheffield to York – have held fairness commissions in recent years to understand why entrenched inequalities persist. As useful and, in some cases, penetrating as these commissions have been they have tended to ignore the nuts and bolts of how public agencies ‘do’ equality – how they go about tackling discrimination, eradicating social patterns of disadvantage, and fulfilling their legislative equalities duties. This is a serious gap. Understanding why these approaches have failed may go some way to explain why serious inequalities continue.

New research providing a bird’s eye view of equalities practice down the decades shows that many ideas have been resistant change. Whereas society has changed greatly over the last 30 years, our equalities tools have remained remarkably similar. For example, in 1984 Birmingham City Council set up a Race Equality Unit with the aim of addressing institutional racism and improving access to council services. By 1989 the Unit had 31 staff, including race relations advisers in housing, education, and social services. The Unit’s annual report for that year shows its activities included training, monitoring uptake of services, helping different departments devise race equality schemes, improving access to services (mainly by translating information), and organising outreach events. If you were to include something about community development (helping local community groups to support disadvantaged people) these activities would all be part of the Standard Six – the half a dozen key actions that have dominated equality strategies and policies over the decades. They’re the things that crop up time and time again, regardless of the organisation’s sector or the demographics of its service users. Ideally, equality approaches would be dynamic – constantly evolving as we better understand what works. Unfortunately, this generally hasn’t been the case.

We don’t want to suggest that no progress at all has been made, of course. For one thing, the number of excluded groups considered by equalities practice has increased. Public authorities in Birmingham didn’t fund any lesbian or gay group during the 1970s or 80s – a situation which would be subject to serious scrutiny today. In addition, equalities practice is beginning to explore the impact of leadership and organisational vision when it comes to embedding best practice and organisations are beginning to focus more on partnership working. However, there are still some things we need to get better at.

Firstly, as agencies work together more closely we need to be crystal clear about what ‘equality’ means. This may sound simple, but if you speak to people in different organisations you’d be surprised at how many answers you get. This is no longer an option. Different agencies have to be on the same page when it comes to delivering fairer outcomes for the most vulnerable. Secondly, and connected with this, we need a shared vision of what good quality of life looks like for Birmingham’s residents. This needs to be informed by what people think is important and by the common needs of people from different communities in the city. In other words, it will involve much more clarity about the ‘domains’ of equality that are important to a wide range of people in the city. Thirdly, we need to devise a series of entitlements necessary to guarantee these needs and measure the provision of these through a multi-agency, multi-sector programme of activities.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – we need to take equality, cohesion, and integration seriously. In addition to the Standard Six, the clearest feature arising from a historical survey of equalities practice is that we’re constantly reacting to things. Whether it’s an influx of new migrants, riots, or legislative changes, equalities practice has always been devised in response to a particular crisis or problem. We have never stood back, thought about the type of society we want to create and then pursued this vision with vigour. It’s clear that equalities practice has usually been seen as a side show to the main business of delivering services. This can’t continue. We need to get on the front foot. Rather than react to problems we need to proactively shape the future.

Which brings us back to where we started: how much does a Birmingham woman earn compared to a man? The answer is £81 for every £100 he earns – a gender pay gap of 19%. This is bad enough itself, but it’s also worth noting that at our current rate of progress it’ll be 2038 before pay equality is achieved (and this is assuming there will always be progress: between 2012 and 2013 the gender pay gap actually increased). It’s becoming increasingly obvious that our traditional approaches to equality are delivering progress at too slow a rate. If we do what we’ve always done we’ll get what we’ve always got. And what we’ve always got has let down too many people.

 

It’s time for a change. 

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