Big Society impact on equalities

Open for All? The changing nature of equality under big society and localism
(January 2012) is a report presenting new research undertaken between February and October 2011 by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and the Centre for Local Policy Studies (CLPS) at Edge Hill University.

Commissioned by Voluntary Sector North West (VSNW) and the North West Infrastructure Partnership (NWIP) the research sought to undertake a focused review of the equalities impact and socio-economic implications of emerging government policies on  localism and the big society and policy and reforms of welfare, health, and approaches to economic growth.

The key common impacts on equalities issues and the equalities focused voluntary and community sector organisations include:

The Big Society and Localism policy reforms have come at a cost – the reforms have been developed without sufficient consideration of equalities issues and equalities impact. The Equality Impact Assessments undertaken by central government are patchy, often without sufficient regard to the legislative elements of the Equalities Act 2010.

“…the whole notion of equalities appears to have taken a step backwards in emerging central policy and as a core value”.

New forms of representation are weak and are excluding groups – localism places emphasis on community and the report highlights real concerns that this emphasis is on geographic community and would lead to a weakening of involvement for protected characteristic interests such as for BME, disabled, and lesbian, gay and bisexual groups.

“Greater consideration needs to given as to how people with protected characteristics can be involved in the implementation of programmes and the design of services so that they are more effective and responsive to needs”.

Cuts are damaging voluntary sector capability to deliver big society –the evidence suggests that the austerity measures that have been introduced and the way that these are feeding out through local government and the NHS are not leading to the development of a big society, instead they are leading to closures and reductions in capacity within the voluntary and community sector.

 “There is therefore a great danger that existing capacity to support the big society and the growth of volunteering will be lost. Larger voluntary and community sector organisations may benefit but the sector may be transformed in a way that fails to meet the big society vision”.

 Welfare reform is having a negative impact on equalities groups – the research has found that benefits and services are being reduced in key areas that negatively affect some equalities groups and individuals e.g.  disabled people and women identified themselves as being in the front line for benefit reform and reductions in services; BME, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans groups were concerned that specialist services which supported their effective citizenship through advice, information, training and access to the labour market would be lost or reduced:

 “Overall, particular classes of people defined by protected characteristics, were experiencing an unfairness because the new policy framework is liable to reinstate patterns of exclusion and discrimination. This erodes the work of successive equalities legislation that has been attempting to overcome these problems over the past decade”.

 The implementation of Government policy is disproportionately harming the most excluded – there was recognition that social and economic deprivation was aggravating barriers to engagement. The socio-economic duty was dropped from the Equality Act 2010, but economic and social deprivation remains a barrier to equalities and its effects intersect with the other barriers to equality experienced by all groups with protected characteristics. Rather than tackling poverty, deprivation and inequality, the report’s authors argue that:

 “there is a hardening and a deepening of inequality amongst equalities groups and people with protected characteristics”

 A real threat to the equalities voluntary and community sector – There are a wide range of organisations that contribute to equalities, some providing specialist services for a particular group within a local area, some providing a regional service supporting local needs and some providing a general commitment to equalities across a wider service. Because of the nature of these services and the communities that they serve many of these organisations have operated through grants or exist as mutuals or through volunteering:

 “there is a very real and growing deficit in the capacity of organisations to properly participate in the new governance structures and hold bodies to account. If equalities are to be effectively supported within these structures then funding mechanisms to support this sector will need to be addressed”.

Given the broader policy agendas for the Big Society and localism and the current government’s rejection of centralised target driven approaches for measurement and governance the report calls for  a new framework for social justice to ensure that equalities and groups with protected characteristics are a central part of localism and the big society. In particular the report recommends that government:

  • must recognise that a Social Justice Framework needs to be developed that ensures public services are accountable to all users and taxpayers.
  • must develop a more joined up approach to understanding and addressing the impact on equalities groups across all policy areas and Government Departments to ensure fairness in provision.
  • must undertake an urgent review of the role of equalities groups in the public service agenda to enable true decentralisation.
  • must consider how they can involve equalities focused voluntary and community sector organisations in the process of diversifying service provision.
  • must adopt a more consultative approach to service provision which builds in the consideration of people with protected characteristics to ensure everyone has access to the best choice of services for them.

Read the full report here:   Open for All

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply