Socioeconomic Equality Duty — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 4:18 pm on 18th November 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 4:18 pm, 18th November 2010

My Lords, with the permission of the House, I would like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Equalities and Criminal Information. The Statement is as follows:

"Equality is at the heart of what this coalition Government are all about. We have come together as a coalition to govern on the principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility. In Britain today, those growing up in households which have fallen too far behind still have fewer opportunities available to them and they are still less able to take the opportunities that are available.

So we need to design intelligent policies that give those at the bottom real opportunities to make a better life for themselves. That is why we are devoting all our efforts and all our energies to policies that can give people real opportunities to make a better life for themselves, not just on new and unnecessary legislation. You do not need new laws to come up with policies that open up opportunities, and you do not need new laws to come up with policies that support and protect the most vulnerable-we have already begun to implement them.

That is why over the course of the spending review we will spend over £7 billion on a new fairness premium. That will give all disadvantaged two year-olds an entitlement to 15 hours a week of pre-school education, in addition to the free entitlement that all three and four year-olds already receive.

It also includes a £2.5 billion per year pupil premium to support disadvantaged children. These measures, combined with our plans for extra health visitors and a more focused Sure Start, will give children the best possible start in life. That is why we are extending the right to request flexible working to all, helping to shift behaviour away from the traditional nine-to-five model of work that can act as a barrier to so many people and that often does not make sense for many modern businesses. And that is why we will implement a new system of flexible parental leave which will end the state-endorsed stereotype of women doing the caring and men earning the money when a couple start a family.

You also don't need new laws to make choices that protect the most vulnerable. So when we have had to make difficult choices about how to deal with the record budget deficit left by Labour, we have done so in a way that protects the most vulnerable. So we will increase child tax credits for the poorest families, protecting against rises in child poverty. We will increase spending on the NHS and schools in real terms every year. We will lift 880,000 of the lowest-paid workers out of income tax altogether. And we will protect the lowest-paid public sector workers from the public sector pay freeze.

All of these policies were designed by the coalition Government to protect those at most risk and to give opportunities to those in most need. They are real action, not unnecessary empty gestures. That is why we are scrapping the socioeconomic duty. I said at the time that this was a weak measure, that it was gesture politics and that it would not have achieved anything concrete. All the policy would have been was a bureaucratic box to tick. It would have been just another form to fill in. It would have distracted hard-pressed council staff and other public sector workers away from coming up with the right policies that will make a real difference to people's chances in life.

You cannot solve a problem as complex as inequality in one legal clause. And you cannot make people's lives better by simply passing a law saying that they should be made better. We believe that real action should be taken in order to address the root causes of disadvantage and inequality. You do not need empty gestures, and you do not need the socioeconomic duty to do so".

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 4:23 pm, 18th November 2010

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement on the socioeconomic duty made in the other place by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary. In thanking the Minister, I note that the Statement is not being repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, who of course was the principal shadow Minister when, in government, we took the Equalities Bill through your Lordships' House. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, made it clear throughout that she supported the Bill. She now seems to have done a virtually complete disappearing act from your Lordships' House, especially since she made her allegations that three Members of the other place were sitting unlawfully as MPs. This Statement might indeed have been an occasion when she wished to make one of her rare appearances at the Dispatch Box.

I thank the Minister, for whom I have very high regard, but I am sorry that I have to do so. I am sorry that the Government are taking the step they intend in relation to the socioeconomic duty in what is now the Equalities Act. In a speech last night in London, the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities signalled her intention towards this provision of the Act-a provision which, I remind your Lordships, this House voted for, as did the other place. Because she had not informed Parliament first, as she is required to do under the Ministerial Code, the Parliamentary Secretary was dragged into Parliament this morning to give the grudging little Statement-sadly, not a Statement from the Home Secretary herself-which the Minister has just repeated here. The Home Secretary had time to make the speech last night but clearly did not have enough time to make a Statement in the other place today. In claiming they would do politics differently, the coalition Government promised they would place Parliament first. Yet again, they have not done so. Yet again, they have been dragged into Parliament to do so.

The Statement from the Minister attempts to make considerable play of what it claims to have done in the name of fairness. It makes no mention of the Home Secretary's speech last night. Perhaps I could help the House by informing it of some of the things that the Home Secretary said last night. She said:

"Equality is not an aside for me; it is not an after-thought or a secondary consideration ... For this government the equalities agenda is about fairness: that is, equal treatment and equal opportunity ... in recent years, equality has become a dirty word because it meant something different. It came to be associated with the worst forms of pointless political correctness and social engineering".

The Home Secretary has said that, in relation to the socioeconomic duty in the Equalities Act, my right honourable friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham had,

"slipped it into the Equalities Act at the last minute".

What the Home Secretary called the Harman law which had been slipped in "at the last minute" was Clause 1 of the Bill that this House considered. I was proud to take the Equalities Bill through this House with my noble friend Lady Thornton, and I was proud of the socioeconomic duty. I assure noble Lords that it was not an empty gesture but a sensible and proportionate way of ensuring that the most disadvantaged people and deprived communities had some protection when strategic decisions were being taken.

The Home Secretary, perhaps inadvertently, then revealed why she was announcing that she was,

"scrapping Harman's law for good".

She said:

"Many have called it socialism in one clause".

The Home Secretary once characterised the Conservatives as the nasty party. Clearly, describing the socioeconomic duty-passed, as I say, by both Houses of Parliament-as "socialism in one clause" shows that, for the nasty party, nothing much has changed. The Home Secretary's remark shows the real intent behind this move. It has nothing to do with equality, the most disadvantaged in our society or opportunity, but everything to do with ideology, politics and prejudice.

The socioeconomic clause in the Equalities Act is a far cry from socialism in one clause, as the Home Secretary seeks to characterise it. It is a measure aimed simply at getting public organisations to think about the impact of their decisions on people who are disadvantaged. Many of these organisations already do so, and this mean-minded little announcement will in all probability not change that. Good public organisations will continue to pursue good policies regardless of what the Home Secretary says, and I am pleased that they will.

The shame of it is that both during the passage of the Equalities Bill and in remarks made since by the Prime Minister and others, senior figures from the party opposite made it clear that they supported many provisions of the Bill. Indeed, I am both grateful for and pay tribute to the principled way in which the Conservative Party in this House enacted the support for the Bill. In this I pay particular tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, who, with her normal constructive and gracious approach, showed real commitment to equality issues, which I know continues.

I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us precisely how the Government intend to scrap the so-called socioeconomic clause "for good", as the Home Secretary said. Will they do it openly and transparently by bringing forward primary legislation aimed at removing this section from the Act, so that this House and the other place can debate and consider it? Or will the Government do it covertly and furtively by simply not implementing this section so that it cannot be debated properly by your Lordships' House? Despite the Home Secretary's lengthy speech, could the Minister confirm that the coalition simply does not care about equality? The Minister has said that the socioeconomic duty is bureaucratic, but the truth is that the Government have the power to decide how the duty would be implemented. Did they attempt to draw up a flexible way of introducing the duty? Despite the Home Secretary's claims that the Government are all about fairness, is it not the case that the Government do not believe that they have any responsibility to deliver a fairer society?

The duty would have helped to make our society fairer and would have given disadvantaged people a fairer chance. The fact that the Government are scrapping the duty because it is "socialism in one clause" shows, in reality, precisely how little fairness actually means to them.

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 4:29 pm, 18th November 2010

My Lords, I have huge respect for the noble Baroness and feel rather saddened and disappointed at her response to the Statement. I should clarify to the House that, in this House, I am the lead spokesman on equalities and women. Therefore, I would repeat the Statement in this House. I am disappointed that the noble Baroness feels that I may not be up to the job.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I did not say that. I have the utmost regard for the noble Baroness. She does a splendid job and I am delighted that she is the Minister responsible for women and equalities in this House. I was making quite a different point, as the record will show.

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I will come back to some of the points that the noble Baroness raised. First, I should say that I have understood what equality means from a very early age. I understand very much what is needed to ensure that everyone in this country has access to opportunity and equality to enable them to reach their full potential. However, the clause that we are discussing did none of that and was unenforceable. Local authorities could consider it but did not need to implement it. It comprised an exercise in bureaucracy and box-ticking and imposed an extra burden on local authorities which are already struggling to manage within the constraints of budget reductions. Therefore, I do not agree that it was a useful part of the Act. Ninety per cent of the provisions of the Equalities Act were introduced in October. The remainder, including the public sector equality duty, will be introduced in April, although we are still debating parts of the Act. However, this particular part is not helpful or useful in terms of what the noble Baroness wants to see happen. It will not aid equality of any kind but will add to bureaucracy. We are helping the most vulnerable people. It is important to make this point. The public sector equality duty will ensure that local authorities and public bodies respond to inequalities of gender, race, disability and all the other inequalities that people face, so I do not accept the argument put forward by the noble Baroness. I hope that she realises that this tiny clause is nothing more than a gesture and will only add to the burdens and bureaucracy of local authorities.

Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:33 pm, 18th November 2010

My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister some questions about points that she has raised today and about what her right honourable friend said at the reception. Her right honourable friend cited as a reason for getting rid of the duty the fact that public sector spending is skewed towards certain parts of the country. I do not know what that means. I could understand its meaning if she was referring to certain parts of communities, but I do not know what is meant by certain parts of the country. She then went on to refer to bin collections and bus service redesign. Neither of those things has anything to do with equality. The socioeconomic duty would help to meet that practical need, whereas talking about dustbins and buses has absolutely nothing to do with it.

The Statement referred to compensating measures to make up for the drastic cuts in benefits and services. For some, that might sound like big and impressive figures. However, I should like to quote again from the comments of the End Child Poverty campaign, which identified many of the things that the Minister talked about. It said:

"The compensating measures don't go nearly far enough to stop this being a dark day for any family struggling to stay out of poverty".

It also talked about householders falling behind. My goodness, a lot more of them will be falling behind. The socioeconomic duty is even more important as a result of the cuts that are coming.

I have another question regarding the sums available. Will those be ring-fenced? How will the Government ensure that they go to the poorest families? What process will make that happen? It is a key part of the Statement.

I am fully in favour of the concept of increasing flexible working-I would not disagree with that one iota. However, many more families will need support, because a large number of them will be unemployed. As for the half-million unemployed public sector workers, I have no doubt the Minister will say that many of them will go into private sector jobs. However, PricewaterhouseCoopers has warned that almost half a million private sector jobs could be lost as a result of the spending squeeze. Are we talking about more families in need of support? The socioeconomic duty would have been invaluable in helping to ensure that support went to the right people.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Lords Spokesperson (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

Perhaps I may remind noble Lords to make their comments as brief as possible so that we can fit in as many people as possible.

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, the noble Baroness asks a lot of questions and I am not sure that I will be able to answer them all. We are looking at how we can manage the budget deficit so that the most vulnerable are least of all affected. That is why we have taken 880,000 people out of the tax system altogether and that is why we are introducing increased child tax credits for the poorest families to mitigate some of the things that they are going to have to face, because for the 13 years that the party opposite was in government poverty increased. We did see an increase in the numbers. So I am sorry to say that this is not an issue on which the party opposite can boast, say that they addressed it and that we are not now addressing it. We are all trying to address this serious problem.

We supported the Child Poverty Act and we were committed to implementing it. The Labour Government repeatedly missed their targets. It is very easy to sit here and say that what we are doing is gesture politics and that what the previous Government did was right. What we have to take on board is that we have huge deficits that we must respond to. We have a duty to support the most vulnerable people and we as a Government take that very seriously. In her speech yesterday morning, my noble friend pointed out that local authorities are best placed to know where and how to spend their resources. They are best placed to know how to react to the needs of their local communities. I do not think that we need a diktat from central government through some clause that will force local authorities into a tick-box bureaucracy that, to be truthful, does not answer any of those questions.

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am sure that it was not impoliteness on the part of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, that she made no mention of the contribution of the Liberal Democrats in getting the Equality Act through Parliament. I pay tribute to her for the major part she played in that. But she will know of course that the original impulse for the statute came from us. I am sure that she will also remember that when we discussed the socioeconomic duty, I explained how it was a piece of political window dressing and windy rhetoric that was unenforceable in practice. I made it clear in Committee that we would support it only if the government of the day were able to give it practical meaning. Is the Minister aware that Article 45 of the constitution of the Republic of Ireland, as I pointed out in Committee, contains equally windy stuff about socioeconomic whatnot, which no Irish person whom I have ever met knows about or has derived the slightest practical value from.

I would have expected Labour to commend the Government for having on 1 October brought in almost all of the Equality Act, which I support, and for being committed to bringing in the public sector duty after proper consideration. The Statement repeatedly says what the limits of law are, which I agree with. Am I correct that the policy of the coalition Government is that equality law is a necessary but not sufficient condition for attaining proper equality of opportunity and treatment, that it requires the voluntary action of public authorities, the private sector and ordinary men and women to make it happen, and that the coalition is committed to achieving that?

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I was disappointed in the Minister's Statement. I remind her, given her response to my noble friend, that the previous Government lifted 500,000 children and close to a million pensioners out of poverty. Therefore, for her to claim that we did nothing about poverty is at best disingenuous-I say this despite the respect that I have for her.

The Minister mentioned the pupil premium. Perhaps she saw that yesterday in the other place the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward walked out when it became clear that the pupil premium will not give a per-pupil increase in real terms. It is a sham. She will have seen in yesterday's unemployment figures that the number of unemployed women went up by 31,000 while the number of unemployed men went down by 40,000. Does that not show that we need legal duties in place as safeguards to ensure that we continue to address inequality?


Event refereed to in the commons:

Submitted by Nate Simpson

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I do not need to take lessons from the noble Lord. However, I will add that the gap between those who have and those who have not has widened-and it widened during 13 years of the noble Lord's Government. The noble Lord highlighted the issue of legal duty. That is why we supported the Equality Act.

Photo of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton Baroness Campbell of Surbiton Crossbench

The Government have stated that their welfare reform proposals will help tackle poverty. This socioeconomic duty may have been able to assess whether this was accurate. It would have obliged authorities to consider changes to policies, and how they could improve or worsen disabled people's chances of living in poverty. Disability organisations have highlighted risks in the government agenda, including in the proposal to cut access to ESA, which could impoverish thousands of disabled people. Are disabled people's organisations right to fear the worst from this announcement; namely, that the Government's abolition of the socioeconomic duty suggests a lack of confidence in their welfare reform agenda?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that the public sector equality duty will do that: the obligation is there in an enforceable Act. It will ensure that local authorities will have to be accountable and able to show what they have put in place to ensure that there is equality for people with disabilities, and for people of different genders, races and religions. It is all there and enforceable. This little clause was a consideration, but not enforceable.

Photo of Baroness Seccombe Baroness Seccombe Conservative

My Lords, having listened to the Minister outlining the good work that is going on, it saddens me deeply to see noble Lords opposite criticising the abolition of a small clause which, as my noble friend has just said, would not have been enforceable but would have caused utter confusion for local authorities, which would not have known how to interpret it. Surely that is something we can do without.

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

I absolutely agree with my noble friend. We know that local authorities are already under great pressure and therefore they do not need another box-ticking exercise. They can consider doing it but are not obliged to do so.

Photo of Baroness Jay of Paddington Baroness Jay of Paddington Chair, Constitution Committee, Chair, Constitution Committee

My Lords, I am sure that no noble Lord on this side of the House is sufficiently naive to think that social change can be achieved through one change in the law, as was referred to in the Statement. None the less, can the Minister tell the House of any single piece of social change, particularly in the equalities area, which has not been underpinned by appropriate legislation?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I repeat that the Conservative Party supported much of the Equality Act, and we tried very hard to ensure that it would deliver the best outcomes for all groups. No one is more passionate about equality with regard to gender, race or disability than I am. I have been the recipient of discrimination, so I know exactly what it is like to fight for equality. Therefore, I know what I want to see in legislation, and I know what is good and what is bad. I think that this is a bad piece of legislation that would waste the time of local authorities.

Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, for her kind words to me. I also thank her for acknowledging that we were behind getting this legislation on to the statute book and that we worked exceptionally hard to make sure that it did. We had good and long debates about the difference between socioeconomic inequality and socioeconomic disadvantage. However, throughout the passage of the Bill we also made it clear that there was a problem with socioeconomic disadvantage that we did not think would be tackled by this duty, which is at best aspirational and at worst vague. We also made it clear throughout the passage of the Bill that, were we to be in government, we would not implement it.

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

I thank my noble friend for that. I was not involved in the Equality Act, so I do not know the minute details of it. However, from the start, there was always a clear understanding that the Conservative Party would not proceed with this part of the Act if we got into government.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour

My Lords, I regret that the clause is going but, contrary to any contributions made so far, I commend the Government on their honesty in deciding to abandon it for the very simple reason that the other policies that they have announced, particularly in relation to downsizing the public service, mean that, as the noble Baroness said, they would not be able to implement the policy. Is it not true-I look to her for an honest answer-that the bulk of the half a million people whose jobs are to go will be the low-paid and women, and indeed many, particularly in London and the south-east, will be from ethnic minorities?

Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat

Can the noble Lord explain which part of Section 1 of the Act would in his view be violated in a way that would lead to legal consequences?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, I try to answer as honestly as I can. I simply reassure him that we believe firmly in the Equality Act. We supported the then Government to ensure that it got through, and we have put into place as many protections as we can for the vulnerable and the low-paid.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

I am not surprised that a Conservative Government are rolling back this aspect, as they told us that that is what they would do. I am surprised at the extent to which the Liberal Democrats roll over again from pledges and promises that they have made to the electorate-on NHS reorganisation, tuition fees and so on. We are getting used to it. For the record, will the noble Baroness say what other measures in the Equality Act the Government intend either not to implement or to delay? I would be pleased to see on the record what those are.

The noble Baroness and the Government are confusing two things: first, putting money in to help the vulnerable-we will see whether or not that works, although many people have their doubts-and, secondly, the issue of equality. The point of this duty was to ensure that somebody in the public sector was paying attention to, for example, the socioeconomic prospects of groups such as Muslim women, Travellers, the Jewish community, girls in sports, the Dalit communities and older Afro-Caribbean communities. Somebody was to pay attention to those communities and their socioeconomic prospects. Are the Government saying that they do not care about that duty? How will they ensure that those communities are taken into account? That was the point of the socioeconomic duty. If the Government want to get rid of that duty in the Equality Act, why are we not having a debate and a vote?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, I will repeat it yet again. We supported much of the Equality Act. If local authorities are worth their weight in gold, they are already doing all the things that the noble Baroness is hoping for. While 90 per cent of the Act has been in force since 1 October, further announcements will be made in due course. The noble Baroness will just have to wait and see.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I understand what the Conservatives said before the election about not liking these clauses, but does the noble Baroness accept that we are now in circumstances of drastic economies in public finances and that tough choices must be made by the public sector? Is not this environment precisely the time when we need a socioeconomic duty to ensure that the poorest in our society are protected?

Photo of Baroness Verma Baroness Verma Lords Spokesperson (Home Office) (Equalities and Women's Issues), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

My Lords, the relevant clauses have not commenced. The Conservative Party made it clear that it opposed them, so we do not have to act further. As I have said repeatedly, we supported a large part of the Equality Bill. We worked incredibly hard with the then Government to ensure that it had a safe passage through this House.

Noble Lords:


Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat

Thank you. This is a quick question, but I have been thinking about it. We know that the gender pay gap has widened. The Equality Act was a long time in gestation and the pay gap is a central tenet of trying to reduce inequality in our society. What parts now being enacted will help to narrow that gender pay gap? That in itself would mitigate so much inequality in our society.