Advancing equality with devolved administrations in England

by Chris Oswald

Published: 20 Jun 2023

The devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is embedded in our constitution. Its purpose is to ensure that decisions that affect people’s lives (their education, health, prosperity and security) are taken democratically by bodies that sit closer to them.  

Devolution of power is gathering pace in England too. This is opening up new opportunities to advance equality and rights. Since Greater Manchester gained its first powers and mayor back in 2011, a further nine regions of England have become Mayoral or Combined Authorities. Each Authority receives an investment package – ranging from £400 million to over £1 billion – usually delivered over a 15-to-25-year period. This money funds their core responsibilities: housing, transport, skills, economic growth and regeneration.  

As a result of this changed landscape, we have asked ourselves how we at the Equality and Human Rights Commission can use our regulatory powers to ensure that these new bodies meet Britain’s equality needs, and particularly ‘pay due regard’ to the statutory Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED). 

We have worked on these issues in Scotland and Wales for years, so we are now passing on the lessons learned to our work in England.  

For example, both Scotland and Wales have City Region Deals which promise to create around 120,000 new jobs. Many of these jobs will be in emerging sectors – digital, biological-technology and the green economy. But only a quarter of workers in the digital industry are women. Women represent less than a fifth of the workforce in wind power. Both the PSED and the Socio-Economic Duty, which exist in Scotland and Wales, apply here. But practitioners can sometimes struggle to make a reality of them, often concentrating on doing no harm (eliminating discrimination) at the expense of focusing on improvement (advancing equality).  

That is why we have worked closely with local and national governments to ensure that they:  

  • have the capacity to write inclusive business cases

  • properly assess the impact of their plans  

  • set stretching equality outcomes, and 

  • ensure that their procurement and benefits realisation plans maximise equality gains.   

To achieve this, we had to think carefully about our regulatory approach. Rather than waiting to spot failure and then intervening, we decided to focus on advancing equality and on what could be achieved with the new investment. This meant using our softer powers to build evidence, provide advice and transfer expertise, rather than our legal compliance tools. All the authorities we have worked with in Scotland and Wales have made progress, whether it’s the £2 billion of community benefits now directed annually at skills development in Greater Glasgow, or the Tay Deal prioritising their poorest areas for 5G roll outs.   

Drawing on that experience in Scotland, we are now working with Greater Manchester, North of Tyne and Liverpool Combined Authorities to ensure that their investments are aimed at advancing equality. In Greater Manchester we have helped them to progress the recommendations of their Inequality Commission report by developing clearer and more focused equality objectives. In Liverpool, we have worked with the mayor’s office to develop a cross-authority socio-economic duty strategy, which was launched in June 2023. And in North of Tyne, we have worked on refreshing and reskilling their approach to Equality Impact Assessments.  

Progress is being made, but there is more to do, and we are looking forward to starting new work with Birmingham and Cornwall Councils, and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority.   

As this work continues, we will share our findings and approaches so that others can consider how this can be of use to their own organisations to help make Britain a fairer place for all.