Equality Act: Class action

Equality Act: Class action
Editorial, The Guardian

Some people believe inequality is a good thing. They argue it is a necessary way of giving individuals an incentive to get up and get on. David Cameron’s conversion to the other point of view, the "we’re all in this together" belief that reflects the fact that inequality reduces social mobility, robs the country of talent it needs and makes people unhappy, was one of the surprises of his leadership. Monday’s news that he wanted to introduce a happiness index, as a measure of public wellbeing, seemed to confirm that he, if not his party, had undergone a genuine shift of perception. But then came Wednesday’s announcement that the duty on public bodies to consider the impact of their policies on the poorest was to be scrapped.

Theresa May, equalities minister as well as home secretary, dismissed the Equality Act’s socioeconomic duty as "socialism in one clause". It’s a natty slogan, but not even the measure’s author, Harriet Harman, would claim so much for it. In fact, it was a moderate and sensible effort to provide exactly the "framework for equality" that Ms May claimed she wanted in her speech on Wednesday. The original idea arose from a serious academic study by a National Equality Panel, convened expressly to map poverty in the UK. The report’s strength – apart from its devastating wealth of detail – was the way it demonstrated how imperfect it is to consider poverty only in terms of race, gender or geography. Its conclusion was that, significant as each of those is, it is class that matters most. And the bigger the gap between bottom and top – and particularly the bottom and the middle – the harder it becomes to escape the class trap.

The merit of the socioeconomic duty was that it left it up to councils, schools and the NHS to decide how best to tackle poverty in their area. That course might have been introducing free school meals for every primary pupil, for example, or extra cash for primary care trusts with the lowest life expectancy. All the clause required was that every new policy had to be considered through the filter of its impact on poverty. Far from being an outbreak of political correctness, as Ms May suggested, it was a small acknowledgment by the last Labour government that, despite its efforts, it had failed to make real, lasting progress against inequality itself. Given the cutbacks in public services, the clause would certainly have demanded some creative thinking about how to spend scarce resources most effectively: already councillors are deeply alarmed at the cumulative impact of lost central grant, benefit cuts, rising unemployment and the coming VAT increase. Could that possibly be the real explanation of the government’s lamentable decision that the obligation to act against poverty had to go?