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Equality Act 2010: Children from Disadvantaged Backgrounds

Volume 682: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2020

[Judith Cummins in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered ensuring that the Equality Act 2010 protects children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I raise this matter today because, in truth, I am not convinced that it does. In fact, my view is that the misapplication and misinterpretation of the Equality Act 2010 has led to the exclusion of some of our country’s poorest people. Whether by flaw of design or subsequent false interpretation, the Act does not deliver what was intended. That is not something we should shy away from just because it is difficult or because it cuts against the popular narrative on diversity. It is important. If we listened to that narrative—the one that holds sway in the media and on Twitter—we would be forgiven for believing that protected characteristics in the Act are things such as black, Asian and minority ethnic, female, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. That is how usually it is put across, even by our institutions, by businesses and even by Government Ministers and Departments on the odd occasion. In truth, that is not correct. The characteristics listed, in fact, are race, sex, sexuality, among others. In fact, a white heterosexual male has just as much protection under the Act as a black, gay female. It is equal, hence the name.

Sometimes it seems like nobody knows this. It is actually quite mad. Rather than the Equality Act 2010 existing to prevent discrimination, an awful lot of people in influential positions—even in our national institutions—seem to be under the impression that the Act and its provisions on positive action give them the right to actively discriminate in favour of certain groups. Discrimination on the basis of those characteristics is, of course, illegal, whether it has “positive” as a prefix or not, but it seems commonplace. For example, there are countless scholarships and bursaries for higher levels of study offered only to BAME students. That is not positive action, I am afraid; that is discrimination. There is a difference. Encouraging under-represented BAME students to apply for scholarships, yes; excluding all white students from a scholarship on the basis of their race should be a no. That is the very definition of discrimination, and it is even worse when, without the lens of identity politics, it is actually the disadvantaged white children who struggle most to access higher education, not BAME children. That positive discrimination favours a group that already does better statistically, and at the expense of the most under-represented. But as I have said, that is commonplace. The Act, or at least its interpretation and implementation, is fundamentally flawed.

According to research by the writer and commentator Douglas Murray, the Act has, in the main, tended to support and promote those who are already closest to their destination, rather than digging down into supporting those in genuine need, perhaps due to the lack of provision around socioeconomic circumstances. There is a socioeconomic duty in the Act, in section 1, which puts a duty on public bodies to exercise their duties in a way that is designed to reduce socioeconomic inequalities. However, that section has never been enacted. I am not a legal expert and I am sure there is a reason for that: perhaps some unintended consequences that would occur if it were enacted, or perhaps a perception that it is unnecessary—a public body should already be doing that. I know that is not directly in the Minister’s brief but, following the debate, can she ask the Equalities Minister to write to me on the issue?

It seems clear that socioeconomic status or social class is, in fact, the greatest indicator of life chances, but that is not a protected characteristic nor is it enacted in section 1. I am sure that there is a reason.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and a very good case, not just on the specific points he has mentioned, but on the wider principle of making sure that the Equality Act actually works. I wish to add to his list the issue of geographical disadvantage. Often, where a person is born in this country—not just the family they are born into but the geographical disadvantages—is a key factor that very often gets overlooked and does not get addressed.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A person’s access to services, for example, can be limited or decided by where they are lucky enough to be born. A key point I am making throughout this speech is that those differences in equality of opportunity exist outside of the protected characteristics enshrined in the Act and that there are other reasons people might not have that same opportunity that we should be addressing.

A lack of provision around socioeconomic equality in the Act and the perverse consequences of the misinterpretation of protected characteristics and positive action means that it can often seem like every other group in society has support and is protected by the Act apart from the most disadvantaged white children, and white boys and men in particular. Recently, UCAS statistics showed that only 9% of white boys on free school meals go to university. The second lowest was white girls on free school meals at 14%. White boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to drop out of school with no qualifications and have the lowest rate of achieving GCSEs, followed by disadvantaged white girls. In contrast, black or Asian girls have the highest chances of going to university. If those statistics were reversed, I guarantee that there would be an uproar. In BAME groups too, boys tend to do worse than girls.

Rates of grammar school entry is another area in which results differ based on ethnic background. Disadvantaged white British children enter grammar school at the lowest rate of any major ethnic group. Disadvantaged Indian pupils are four times more likely to attend, and Chinese pupils are 15 times more likely. Again, across all races and ethnicities, boys are lower in the rankings than girls.

In education at least, the constant false interpretation of the Act, which promotes positive action for BAME and female pupils, seems entirely backwards. Disadvantaged white boys are statistically faring the worst. They are under-represented at universities and in our public institutions, and their life chances are most limited because they are most likely to have no qualifications.

The popular narrative of white privilege is regularly wheeled out, and it is assumed that those poorest white children do not face discrimination on that basis, but in fact they do. If we step outside the Twitter bubble, we are faced with the stark reality that, through that kind of rhetoric, our society is ignoring what is statistically one of its most vulnerable demographics. As it happens, those lads are more likely than anyone to chuck themselves under a train, and that is not a coincidence.

It could be argued, if one were so inclined, that the Act, or at least the unfettered misapplication of it, has played a part in exacerbating this problem. I have long argued that identity politics is divisive and unhelpful, and the Act enshrines it in our law. It does not recognise the individual needs of the most disadvantaged people, and it actively supports the advancement of others through so-called positive action based not on their actual individual needs or disadvantage, and not on any actual discrimination or barriers they face as individuals, but on the basis of broad assumptions based on their physical characteristics.

The identity politics—the lumping of people into boxes, rather than considering their individual circumstances—that is enshrined in the Act is deeply troubling. We have seen it manifest itself in other ways that have become part of the popular narrative recently. But it is surely the case that privilege or hardship are not based on which of these characteristic boxes a person ticks but are down to their wider individual circumstances—things such as socioeconomic background or geography, which my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned. Socioeconomic status and social class are more indicative of a person’s life chances than their physical characteristics. Physical characteristics play a part, of course. Discrimination, racism, misogyny and homophobia exist, but they are one part of a more complex picture—one segment of an individual’s life experience and opportunity. We should help people based on their actual needs, not on guesswork based on flawed metrics. The interpretation and implementation of the Act is deeply flawed.

I am fed up to the back teeth with identity politics. I do not want to be stood here saying, “White kids this,” and, “White kids that.” I value all kids and their futures, and the support they get should be based on what they need, not on the colour of their skin, their gender or any other grand narrative that we concoct to make ourselves feel better. Separating black and white, gay and straight, male and female in that way is combative and unhelpful, but it sometimes feels like I have to highlight white disadvantaged kids and their plight, because otherwise they do not seem to get a look in.

If we talk generally about disadvantage, the system and our legislation—this misinterpretation of the Equality Act—always seem to bring the discussion back around to the BAME, female and other misinterpretations that we have enshrined in law. If we do not say “white kids”, the popular narrative and the system seem to leave them behind—and have done so in many cases—in favour of a fundamentally flawed diversity agenda, which is hugely frustrating and, in many ways, wrong.

In closing, I want to ask the Minister some questions. I do not know the answers, and I do not expect her to know the answers, but I hope they will be taken away for consideration. As an Education Minister, she will no doubt have some remarks about the points I have made about education, which I would welcome. The Secretary of State has been clear about his wish to support more disadvantaged white working-class boys into university, for example, if that is their aspiration, and that is very welcome.

I have some questions about the Equality Act itself, and I wonder whether the Minister can take them away and perhaps raise them with colleagues in the Government Equalities Office. First, why has the socioeconomic provision within the Act not been enacted? If it is flawed or inappropriate in its detail, how can we fix it? What protections can the Act offer to those who face barriers and discrimination based on being poor, being in care or other hardships that are not recognised in this law? Secondly, if the answer is “none”, will the Government look closely at the implications of that section of the Act and seek to amend it in a way that offers such support?

Thirdly, will the Government review the implications of amending the Act to remove or change any damaging positive action elements that go way beyond preventing discrimination and, due to the constant misinterpretation of those who claim ownership of it, appear in practice to condone positive discrimination to the exclusion of some of our country’s poorest people?

Finally, at the very least, the Government should consider clearly restating the actual aims and nature of the provisions of the Act, laying out the reality, challenging the false rhetoric around it and requiring their own officers and institutions to implement it in a fair and balanced way. There are fundamental flaws in the way the Act is implemented, whether owing to poor design or poor interpretation. Left unchallenged, that has made things worse for some of the most vulnerable children in our society. This narrative has led, for example, to fee-paying schools rejecting charitable support for disadvantaged children based on their race, and we have heard in recent weeks that it has led to racial segregation in UK businesses, such as Sainsbury’s. It is unhealthy and a backward step. Something needs to change.

It is a pleasure to speak in this short but important debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), who has done a tremendous amount of work to raise important issues about children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is particularly white working-class boys in the north of England and the midlands who are falling behind, as we see from the statistics. We could do so much more to solve the problem.

Fortunately, standards in Warrington South schools have risen dramatically over the past 10 years. Evelyn Street Primary School in Sankey Bridges, which is in one of the town’s pockets of high deprivation, has gone from failing to proudly being one of the top schools in England. I have seen at first hand how the academy trust’s chief executive officer, Mrs Smith, approached the school’s transformation, changing the culture and pushing for improvements at every turn. We have seen the same thing in all the academies in her trust. It is fair to say, looking back at the data, that many of the children who were most at risk of being failed in that school when she first arrived in 2004 were white working-class boys with hard-working parents, many of them on low incomes or struggling to find employment. A key part of the school’s success has been educating parents to have high expectations for their children.

Sadly, not all school experiences are as good as that of Evelyn Street. In towns across the north and the midlands, white working-class boys are falling behind, and they have been for some time. More than a dozen times in recent years, they have been ranked the lowest or second-lowest performing ethnic group in the country. As the chair of the all-party group for school exclusion and alternative provision, I am greatly concerned by that, as is the rest of the group. By the age of five, white working-class boys are 13% behind disadvantaged black boys and 23% behind disadvantaged Asian girls in phonics, and they are 40% less likely to go into higher education than their black counterparts.

The events of recent months have shone some light on why we need a review of the system to give everyone equal opportunities to succeed while providing children, parents and teachers with the tools to do so, and supporting children like those at Evelyn Street Primary School. I am particularly pleased to see the £1 billion catch-up fund to help children to recover some of the learning that they lost when schools were closed. Although that funding is hugely welcome, it is critical that it is focused on disadvantaged cohorts such as white working-class boys.

This short debate is about the Equality Act 2010. It is interesting that the Act introduced many protected characteristics, including age, disability and sex, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield mentioned, whereas one key determinant of success in school is socioeconomic background, which is not a protected characteristic. There are many arguments for and against making socioeconomic circumstances—including where someone was born—a protected characteristic. Given that white working-class boys are clearly identifiable as being more at risk of exclusion and failure in the system than almost any other group, perhaps it is time to review that. I urge the Minister to look carefully at the data on exclusions outside London. I also ask her to commit to looking into whether making socioeconomic background a protected characteristic could be a way to protect the forgotten group that is white working-class boys, or whether the Act could be amended in some other way. Part 1 of the Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield mentioned, puts a duty on public authorities to have regard to socioeconomic inequalities when exercising their functions, but that section of the Act is not in force.

To conclude, hon. Members will find nobody who is more supportive than I am of the Government’s commitment to levelling up across our country and investing in communities that need it most. The fastest way to help people out of poverty is to help them to get a job, and the best way to make sure that young people have a fighting chance when they enter the workforce is to make the most of their talents and ensure that they get a great start in life with a first-class education.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) on securing this really important debate. As he knows, ensuring equality of opportunity is a topic that is close to my heart. I feel privileged to be part of a Government that holds this important issue as a real priority.

The Equality Act provides protection to all children, as well as to adults. We must get away from the perception that protected characteristics in the Act are there only to protect certain groups and exclude others. For example, a white boy at school is covered by the Act in the same way, and to the same extent, as his BAME classmates or schoolgirls of any race. If a white boy from a disadvantaged background feels he has been treated less fairly in educational work compared with his female or BAME peers, he has a means of redress available to him, initially through informal routes, but ultimately at a tribunal if it is felt to be necessary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield asked about the elements of the Act that relate to positive action. The Act enables positive action to help to ensure that all groups of society are fairly represented, but that is not the same as positive discrimination, where one group might be unfairly favoured over another. Positive action is designed to enable the promotion of a level playing field. An example of positive action is when an employer wants to address the fact that it does not have any disabled apprentices; the employer can favour the recruitment of a disabled applicant over a non-disabled one, provided that their applications are broadly of equal merit. That is positive action.

Positive discrimination is unlawful under the Equality Act, however. If people have evidence of positive discrimination, they should take such cases to the courts or tribunals and call out breaches, to help to ensure that the positive action provisions are used only as intended. The provisions were supported across Parliament when the legislation was brought in in 2010. We support them as a means of levelling up the playing field for disadvantaged groups, but it is really important that the public and private sectors understand the lawful use of positive action. The code of practice and guidance exist for that purpose.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield also asked, most perceptively, about the socioeconomic provisions in the Act. Social status is not one of the characteristics protected by the Act, and we need to be careful not to use it as a vehicle for social engineering rather than as a shield against discrimination. A duty of that kind would more likely result in public bodies trying to retrofit a levelling-down agenda, rather than offering better opportunities for all disadvantaged groups and levelling up.

I do not mean to try to catch the Minister out here, but can she explain to me the difference between social engineering and positive action?

Positive action is designed to enable opportunities to be given, as opposed to positive discrimination, which is unlawful. That is why it is so important that the guidance is clear on the subject. We need to promote the level playing field and enable levelling up, and not encourage behaviour that could constitute levelling down.

We need to avoid taking a tick-box approach. Amending part 1 of the Equality Act would not necessarily lead to what my hon. Friend seeks, because there is a real danger that it could create a tick-box mentality, which might be seen as an acceptable substitute for meaningful action. We want to avoid such distractions and concentrate on real help. I assure him that the action he has taken today has ensured that the Government will keep both the legislation and the guidance under review.

We are also improving our approach to equalities. We are reshaping the Government Equalities Office, bringing it closer together with the race disparity unit and the disability unit to create an equality hub. We need to move away from the idea that we are simply dealing with groups that already enjoy Equality Act protection, and instead ensure that we are looking at individuals across the country and identifying those who are most in need, what their biggest barriers to success are and where there is unequal delivery of public services. We want to examine issues such as geography, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) mentioned, where communities in certain areas risk being held back. We also should be focusing on analysing the data, looking closely at individual dignity and opportunity and also at areas such as income and background, so that we have a more holistic view.

We understand, however, that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, including boys, may face greater challenges at every stage of education. We are committed to addressing those challenges, levelling up education standards and improving outcomes.

Will the Minister tell us a little bit about how the Government are particularly addressing the issue of boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, to get that levelling-up agenda delivered?

Absolutely. One of my passions is the early years of development, and too many children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are falling behind in those early years. It is then so hard to close the gaps once they have emerged, and evidence shows us that what happens in a child’s pre-school years—those very early years—are the most important and have a huge influence on later outcomes. That is why the Government have been making record investments in early education, including 15 hours of free education for all disadvantaged two-year-olds as well as three and four-year-olds. It is also why we have doubled the amount of free childcare available to three and four-year-olds for working parents.

These investments have led to a real improvement. The latest early years foundation profile shows that the proportion of all children reaching a good stage of development by the time they start school—year 1—has gone up from 51%, or one in two children, in 2013 to nearly 72%, or two in three children, in 2019. Furthermore, over the same period, the gap between the children who are eligible for free school meals and their peers at age five has narrowed from 19 percentage points to just under 18 percentage points. Indeed, the same is true in school: because of the education reforms that were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), 86% of schools are now judged to be good or outstanding, compared with only 68% of schools in 2010. As a result, the disadvantage attainment gap has narrowed by 13% at age 11 and by 9% at age 16, and it has narrowed at every stage from early years to age 16 since 2011. However, we know there are still issues in other areas, so we have committed an extra £18 million to the £72 million opportunity areas programme to transform the life chances of young people in 12 of the most disadvantaged areas of the country—those with particularly low social mobility.

My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South also mentioned the very important issue of exclusions. It used to be the case that looked-after children—children in care—had the very highest rates of permanent exclusion, and we are making sure that those children in care, who often have the worst life outcomes, are supported to succeed in education. For example, we have put in place virtual school heads, designated teachers for looked-after children, and extra funding through the pupil premium plus for this group. The virtual school heads, in particular, have made a significant impact since they were introduced in 2014. Data shows progress across maths, reading and writing for looked-after children, and today, looked-after children are less likely to be permanently excluded from school than all other children. Interventions of this nature are making a real impact on some really disadvantaged groups.

However, we know that the disadvantage gap is at risk of widening because of the pandemic. Lack of digital access is of particular concern, and that is why we have committed over £160 million to support remote education access and provided nearly half a million laptops and tablets to those most in need. We have also announced the £1 billion covid catch-up fund, of which £350 million is going into the national tutoring programme. That will particularly focus support from high-quality tutors on disadvantaged and vulnerable children who are most at risk of falling further behind. The first group of tutors starts on 1 November, and I strongly urge all my hon. Friends to ensure that schools in their constituencies are aware of that element of the catch-up programme and ensure that the vulnerable students in their area receive support.

I do not expect an answer to this, but I want to highlight a challenge. The poorest school in my constituency in the poorest catchment is very keen to access support for IT, tutoring and everything else, but 25% of parents within the school are illiterate and they do not want to take laptops home because they fear that the laptops will be stolen, or that they will targeted by gangs involved in drugs on the estate where they live. There are children on free school meals, and then there is another group of children who have this huge disadvantage. Will the Government consider that group, who will not be able to engage with laptops and tutors? Is there something else we can do to help them?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. This is why the national tutoring programme will bring extra resources into schools to help young people. That will be on top of the £650 million catch-up fund that has gone to all schools. It will provide extra tutoring and support—one on one, or in small groups—for those individuals, for whom it is so important. This is a deeply challenging time, and we absolutely understand that we need to make sure that the attainment gap does not unnecessarily widen any more. We have spent a decade trying to close it, and we need to make sure that it does not spring apart again, particularly for the cohorts of children that my hon. Friend mentions.

I am enormously grateful for my hon. Friend’s support for this agenda. He has raised important concerns. I particularly note his questions, which we will take up with the Equalities Office. I hope I have helped to explain the difference between positive action, which is allowed, and positive discrimination, which is not. I point him again to the need for continual work on the guidance on this subject, and I will make sure that I continue to raise these points with the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch). I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield is happy that the Government’s response today echoes his concerns. We have taken steps to underline the importance of supporting the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, and to make sure that all children from all backgrounds, including the most disadvantaged, have the best opportunities in life.

Question put and agreed to.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those who are coming in for the next debate, I am suspending the House for two minutes.

Sitting suspended.