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Socio-economic Equality Duty

Volume 518: debated on Thursday 18 November 2010

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister to make a statement on the announcement yesterday outside Parliament that the Government intend to drop section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, which places duties on public bodies to act in respect of socio-economic disadvantage.

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 that 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. 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 energies to policies that can give people real opportunities to make life better for themselves, and not just to new and unnecessary legislation.

We do not need new laws to come up with policies that open up opportunities, and we 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.

Those 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, which can act as a barrier to so many people and often does not make sense for many modern businesses, and 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.

We do not need laws to make choices that protect the most vulnerable. 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. 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 those policies were designed by the coalition to protect those most at risk and to give opportunities to those most in need. They are real action, not unnecessary empty gestures. That is why we are scrapping the socio-economic duty. I said during the passage of the Bill that this was a weak measure, that it was gesture politics, and that it would not have achieved anything concrete. The policy would only have been a bureaucratic box to tick—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.

We cannot solve a problem as complex as inequality in one weak legal clause, and we 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 to address the root causes of disadvantage and inequality. We do not need empty gestures, and we do not need the socio-economic duty, to do that.

It is very disappointing that I had to ask the Minister to come here. I would have expected at least a written ministerial statement or a statement to the House on a decision of this nature.

Dropping the socio-economic duty was not in the coalition agreement. It was a major part of the Equality Act 2010, which Parliament passed only this year. While we know that the Conservatives have never wanted Government to take responsibility for building a more equal society, that is not the view that the hon. Lady herself has previously taken. In fact, despite her words just now, on Second Reading of the Equality Bill she called for more legislation:

“The Government should have made legislative proposals to tackle socio-economic inequality in a Bill of its own”.—[Official Report, 11 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 579.]

Given the importance of narrowing the equality gap, does she still think this?

What proposals will the Minister now bring forward to assess the impact of Government policies on the most disadvantaged? Despite her fine words, is it not true that this Government simply do not care about socio-economic inequality? The Institute for Fiscal Studies has proved that the Government are hitting the poorest hardest. If there is no duty, how will people know about the impact of Government decisions on the most disadvantaged?

With this duty in place, public bodies would have had to think about what they should be doing to improve life chances. We all know about Sure Start; indeed, the Minister referred to it. We know its fantastic work, and how its impact is greatest on the most disadvantaged children. Councils would have had a duty to take that into account if they were thinking of closing children’s centres, but she is now saying that they will not. Does she think that is right?

The hon. Lady said that the duty is bureaucratic, but the truth is that the Government have the power to decide how it is implemented. Did the Government even attempt to draw up a flexible way of introducing it?

The Minister said that we cannot deliver equality by legislation, but the simple truth is that the Government do not believe that they have any responsibility to deliver a fairer society. Of course, legislation does not work like magic, but it is a key way that Government can change things. Road safety legislation does not stop all accidents, but it does make our roads safer and it does save children’s lives. This duty would have helped to make our society fairer, and it would have given poorer people a fair chance, so why is she scrapping it?

After 13 years of a Labour Government who left behind them a more unequal society with a widening gap between rich and poor, the idea that an exceptionally weak clause in an Act that has not been enacted or implemented was major legislation, when it contained only a duty to consider, is everything that is bad about politics. [Interruption.] It has not been implemented.

The public sector equality duty that will be introduced in the spring is the strongest measure possible. It will allow for transparency, and it will allow people to hold the authority to account in their locality. What the Government are doing is far more important than the duty the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentions. We are taking 880,000 lower-paid people out of tax, and spending £7 billion on the fairness premium and £2.5 billion on the pupil premium, which is additional money and the single most important measure for changing children’s life chances.

What is more, let me read to the hon. Lady what the last Government’s social mobility tsar Alan Milburn said:

“The challenges of the future call for a different relationship between the state and the citizen…It will mean…not just passing laws.”

But that was all the Labour party did—pass laws. What we are doing is about outcomes, not ticking boxes.

The most disadvantaged children, like all children, need time with their parents to thrive and prosper. Does the Minister think that flexible parental leave and the right to request flexible working are a more progressive concept than equality by diktat?

Of course, the right for all employees to request flexible working is a hugely important step and extremely progressive. It is about shifting the stigma that has always appertained to women requesting flexible working, and accepting that in whole-life journeys we all have caring responsibilities, including men, who were part of the equation last time I looked.

If the hon. Lady is so dismissive of legislation, one wonders why she is sitting where she is. May I point out to her that it was legislation that afforded women the right to vote, quite apart from other legislation that has been transformative not only for our society but for societies around the world?

If the hon. Lady is genuinely concerned that children in deprived situations should be taken out of that deprivation, why have her Government introduced a cap on housing benefit that will make thousands of children homeless?

Order. The Minister really cannot go into the subject of housing benefit caps. She can give a reply on equality if she wants, but she cannot talk about that, I am afraid.

That is such a shame, Mr Speaker, but I will restrain myself.

Of course legislation is important, but it must be effective legislation, not gesture legislation.

Is the Minister as surprised as I am to hear what is being said by Opposition Members who, in debates on previous legislation, have argued against equally weighted votes for men and women in equally sized constituencies?

Order. May I just say gently that people are perfectly entitled to vent their views, but questions must relate to the socio-economic duty? That is the matter that we are discussing.

The Government’s dilution of the previous Government’s equality legislation is just one of a series of betrayals of women. They failed to undertake a gender impact assessment of the emergency Budget—[Interruption.] Maybe the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice would like to take this seriously, because it is a serious matter. The Government have failed to sign up to new measures to combat human trafficking of women and children, and they have frozen the pay of the lowest-paid public sector workers, whose actual salaries are less than £21,000 and many of whom are women. When exactly will they stop taking measures that have a disproportionately negative impact on women?

As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, the Treasury did an envelope impact assessment on the comprehensive spending review, and each Department will undertake an extensive impact assessment as the spending review plays out. The Government are absolutely committed to equality and fairness—not just saying that we are doing it, but actually doing it.

I do not know what a socio-economic equality duty is, and nor do the people of Wellingborough. May I suggest that it is left-wing tosh and should be scrapped?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s direct approach. I probably would not put it in quite such pejorative terms. If the Government are interested in delivering fairness and equality, that has to be done through measures that actually deliver them, rather than just talking about them.

Perhaps I can help the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). In the poorest wards in my constituency, my local authority—Tory-controlled Trafford—has repeatedly under-invested in public services, from addressing health inequalities to sweeping snow from the streets. In the absence of the socio-economic duty, how can my poor constituents be sure that they will not continue to lose out?

All councils up and down the country that are worth their salt will already be considering the socio-economic duty in terms of all the money they spend. That is the point. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but Opposition Members can jump up and down as much as they like—a duty to consider is not action at all.

Does my hon. Friend recall that I, too, was a member of the Committee that considered the Equalities Bill? Does she agree that the then Minister’s enthusiasm for this duty was utterly unconvincing in Committee? Does she agree that it detracted from the seriousness of the other duties in the Bill and that there was no idea what the impact would be?

I agree. That is the whole point. That is why I called the duty weak and why Lord Lester from the other place called it watery. It would not deliver what it said it would. Other proposals in the Bill were more important, but this duty distracted from their importance.

I am rather pleased by what the Minister has said, because it demonstrates beyond any shadow of a doubt that she, like other Liberal Democrats in the Government, is simply a mouthpiece of the Tories.

The Bill’s provisions have been described as “socialism in one clause”. Does the Minister agree that we cannot solve a problem such as inequality in one clause, whether by socialism or any other means?

I agree. Delivering equality and fairness is a serious matter, and the idea that one clause would make a significant difference is wrong, particularly as it was a tick-box exercise. If it had delivered a measured outcome, I am sure we would be implementing it; as it did not, we are not.

For decades, disabled people were told that equality would come through education and changing attitudes, but it did not. It was not until the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—an imperfect Act it was, too—that we began to see equality. The Equalities Act 2010 would have done the same for poor people, and it does them and the hon. Lady a disservice when she says that the Government will scrap this duty. That is a mistake.

The hon. Lady makes my point for me. Substantive legislation is extremely important; this was not substantive legislation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition’s fixation on socio-economic equality rather than equality of opportunity is the reason why, sadly, during 13 years of Labour, our young people’s chances were determined by how much their parents earned. That brings shame on Opposition Members.

I could not agree more. It is to the shame of the Labour Government that, after 13 years, they left this country more unequal than ever before.

I am sorry, but it is rather incredible that the Minister has come here to try to defend the indefensible and that she has done it so poorly. Surely, if the legislation is put in place, it is up to the Minister to ensure that it is not simply a tick-box exercise. What message does it send to people on lower incomes in poor communities when the Government do not feel that they are worth legislating for?

It is totally defensible. Listening to Opposition Members, I must say that they are re-enacting what is in the Act: they are talking about things, not delivering them.

I welcome the Minister’s reply, but will she go further? The Government are consulting on related regulations to force up to 27,000 councils, schools, police forces and other bodies annually to audit their work force on age, disability, sexuality, sex changes, religion and other beliefs. Can she explain how, according to the departmental answer I received this week, those requirements will not cost public—

Order. That question suffers from the disadvantage that it has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the socio-economic duty.

The Minister came to the Chamber and said that the duty was “weak” and a “gesture”, and that substantive legislation is required. When will she introduce that legislation?

I think the hon. Lady misheard. I did not say that. I said that if we want to make a difference with substantive legislation, we should introduce it. I have already said that the Equality Act 2010 is substantive legislation, but that duty is a little bit of it that is not substantive.

My hon. Friend is right to focus on specific measures. Does she therefore agree that it would be better to enact practical measures such as the right to request flexible working?

All hon. Members are in a position of immense privilege, and it is generally the case that laws and regulations are made by the privileged and imposed on the disadvantaged. Therefore, how can the Minister argue against a requirement to consider the interests of those in our society who do not have a voice?

Because it is meaningless. If I thought that the requirement would deliver anything, I would implement it. As it does not, I will not.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we heard from the Opposition spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), the pure nanny-state politics that was rejected so decisively by the British people at the last election?

Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting a little carried away, which is not an uncommon phenomenon in the House. He has resumed his seat and we are grateful to him. He knows, because he has been in the House for, I believe, 18 years, that he should not ask a Minister about the policies of the Opposition.

Order. The hon. Gentleman must contain himself. We will leave it there, and we are grateful to him.