Committee (1st Day)

Part of Equality Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 11th January 2010.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, House of Lords, Leader of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 5:45 pm, 11th January 2010

I was not ignoring the noble Lord's question, which I shall come to shortly. We believe that it is important to address both the issues, which is precisely what we are doing, but in different ways.

The CAB welcomed this clause as an effective tool to ensure that public services and policy-makers have an overriding objective to tackle the systematic problem of socio-economic disadvantage. Citizens advice bureaux are at the front line of dealing with the effects of unfairness and inequality.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, might put it, we have addressed the rot in the past 12 years and we have been treating both the symptoms and the diseases in that time. The Government can be proud of their track record on reducing inequality. I could cite many things, including the national minimum wage, which has helped around 1 million low-paid employees; 900,000 pensioners and 500,000 children have been lifted out of poverty, and we have put in place measures to help another 500,000 children escape it. We have increased spending on early learning and childcare to more than £5 billion and we have opened more than 3,000 Sure Start centres, many in deprived areas. We have taken many very significant and effective initiatives, but we recognise that there is more to be done and the socio-economic duty is one way of addressing some of these issues.

Amendment 1 raises issues concerning the policy intent of public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities. It would subtly change the focus of duty from reducing the inequalities of outcome to reducing inequalities of opportunity. I have some sympathy with the objective behind the amendment but it is unnecessary. The right reverend Prelate is right when he says that the clause is about both outcomes and opportunities. The point is that inequalities of outcome in terms of wealth, health, housing and so on are directly measurable, whereas measuring the underlying disadvantage in a way that is useful to the public bodies implementing the duty is difficult. Hence we are focused on the outcome. On Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said that we must ensure that the Bill brings real outcomes. We believe that this clause will do that.

We are very much committed to promoting equality of opportunity. Indeed, we use that term elsewhere in the Bill. There is obviously a clear link between opportunities and outcomes. Put simply, more equal opportunities promote more equal outcomes as people take advantage of those opportunities. More equal outcomes are good evidence for genuinely equal opportunities, but we need them to be genuine and achievable. It is not enough to say that anyone can apply to a top university or for a top job in one of the professions to promote social mobility. We need to make the chances of success, and the aspirations necessary to achieve them, real for everyone. In short, we need a more level playing field. That is what the duty is designed to do-to influence the big strategic decisions that key public bodies make, which influence people's lives. To do that, and to measure their success in achieving that, they will need to focus on tangible, measurable outcomes. That is why Clause 1 focuses on outcomes rather than opportunities.

Amendment 2 would require the relevant public bodies, when making decisions of a strategic nature, to give particular weight to the question of how their decisions could help reduce income gaps between the rich and the poor with the aim of promoting well-being and sustainability. Once again, of course I have some sympathy with the amendment. A number of noble Lords referred on Second Reading to the work of the Equality Trust, which was summarised in a book, The Spirit Level, much quoted in this Chamber. The gist of the authors' impressive research is that societies that are more equal in terms of income distribution tend to be better societies in every way-richer, healthier, happier, more cohesive, less prone to violent crime and so on. I concur with that analysis, which is why we need the socio-economic duty.

The purpose of the duty is to ensure that certain key public bodies, such as government departments, local authorities, police authorities, health authorities and so on, consider how they can best help people fulfil their potential and remove barriers that hold some people back, through their strategic decisions. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, spoke of the importance of reducing income in securing improved economic outcomes. But that duty is about more than ensuring that income gaps are reduced, although that is an important factor. It is about helping people get on, get educated, get a job, improve their health and so on. Income is a very important factor that can hold people back, but people can be held back by many things, such as lack of ambition and expectations, and a whole mix of factors related to their health, education, family background and so on, which limits their life chances. For some public bodies, it could be income inequalities, but for many bodies it will not be.

Amendment 3 relates to Clause 1(4). That subsection is important because it ensures that when the long-term vision for an area set out in its sustainable community strategy is being drawn up, all parties involved give due consideration to the desirability of addressing socio-economic inequalities. This long-term strategic planning is vital to achieving the changes that we want. The amendment proposes that we remove that provision-that would leave the local authority alone in taking the agenda forward, which cannot be right. We have been careful to limit the number of public bodies covered directly by the duty, because it will have the most impact if it is built into a high-level decision-making process that has a far-reaching effect across the delivery of public services. But it is vital, when all those local public service partners come together, to make strategic decisions about the long-term vision for an area and that they give due consideration to tackling socio-economic inequalities. Therefore, I do not think that the amendment is very helpful.

Amendment 4 concerns the policy intent of public sector duty regarding socio-economic inequalities. It is intended to prevent the socio-economic duty from having an effect until definitions of "socio-economic inequalities" and "socio-economic disadvantage" are laid before Parliament. The amendment is unnecessary as Clause 1(2) states that the public bodies covered by the duty must take account of guidance issued by a Minister of the Crown when deciding how to fulfil that duty. As I have already made clear, we intend to issue guidance to support the duty. We will consult widely on it and we will issue it in good time. Indeed, officials have already been engaged with the various public bodies covered by the duty, and their representative bodies, to develop the basic principles that will underpin the guidance. These were published last week in the guide to the duty, to which I referred earlier.

Plainly, guidance that can be updated to reflect the changing circumstances would be the most appropriate vehicle for setting out what these terms mean and how we expect the bodies covered by the duty to implement it. We want socio-economic disadvantage to be considered in a common-sense manner in a way that is relevant to each public body's functions. Laying a formal definition before Parliament, as required by the amendment, could lead to an inflexible interpretation and would limit a Minister's ability to update guidance in order to make it relevant to changes in society. However, we are clear about what these terms mean and I am happy to outline them briefly.

The term "socio-economic disadvantage" may not immediately resonate with some people, but it accurately describes the situation of those we want to target for this duty. It is partly about basic inequality-that is straight poverty-but it is also about the lack of aspirations and expectations and about the complex interplay of factors such as health, housing, education and family background that so often combine to keep people in poverty and limit their chances of upward social mobility. It is about the way in which social and economic factors combine. I believe that the concept is clear and we will work with the public bodies concerned to ensure that the guidance makes that clear to them also, and helps them to identify which aspects of socio-economic disadvantage they should be influencing.

The term "socio-economic inequality" is used only in the title of Clause 1. In that context, it is perhaps just read as shorthand for "the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage". The point is that inequalities of outcome in terms of wealth, health, housing et cetera are directly measurable, whereas measuring the underlying disadvantage in a way that is useful to public bodies implementing the duty is very difficult. That is why in this instance we have focused on the outcome. Inequality of outcome is fairly explanatory. "Outcome" is a term commonly used by government to describe the results and end product of strategies and policies, particularly in relation to the social mobility agenda. So what we are getting at here is the unequal distribution between individuals of the end product of public authority strategies, policies and practices.

Finally, I have to say that when the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, speaks of Clause 1 as being pernicious and anti-libertarian, I do not recognise the clause in terms of those adjectives. I think that the duty will hugely assist people like the noble Lord, me and many other people who came from far worse circumstances to achieve. It will therefore help to improve the society in which we live-the communities from which we come.