In equality?

by Chris Oswald

Published: 19 Mar 2015

The renewed consensus on tackling income inequality shared by the major political parties in Scotland is welcome.  But will these anti-poverty policies benefit everyone equally? Is there a risk that as we work to narrow the gap between the poorest and richest in Scotland we inadvertently widen the gap between men and women, disabled and non-disabled, and ethnic minority and white Scots? 

Living in poverty and deprivation limits the opportunities of too many Scots. Poverty stops children fulfilling their educational potential, damages their physical and mental development, and reduces opportunities to flourish. Going without work leaves too many feeling they have no stake in economic or social life. Working for low pay places undue pressures on parents, forcing them to make choices between their families’ financial and emotional needs. 

In the rush to recovery, Scotland's politicians and economists are committed to ensuring that this rising tide will lift everyone out of poverty equally. 

But there is evidence that, without nuance and care, our anti-poverty policies might narrow the gap between the richest and poorest, but at the same time widen the gap for others - between men and women, disabled and non-disabled, or ethnic minority and white Scots.

Policies on income deprivation aim to tackle poverty in the most deprived neighbourhoods by upskilling people and getting them work-ready. The Modern Apprenticeship (MA) programme is an excellent example of how anti-poverty programmes can make a real difference to people’s prospects and pockets.

But what about the barrier you face isn’t your skills or abilities but something outside your control?

For many women in Scotland it may be a lack of affordable childcare that keeps you out of work and in poverty. Or that the work offered to you – 'women’s work' - pays less and has less chance of advancement than 'men’s work'.

For many disabled people it may be a lack of simple aids and adaptations in the workplace that prevents you from getting in and getting on. Or worse - the lack of accessible transport means you couldn't get to your workplace in the first place.

For ethnic and religious minorities in Scotland it could be the simple matter of your faith or your name - not your CV - that determines your prospects. Quite literally your face doesn't fit.

The MA programme shows how a highly successful policy can fail many different groups of people in our society. The majority of women apprentices are training in lower-skilled, lower-paid careers, reinforcing the income inequality between men and women for another generation. Ethnic minorities are almost entirely absent from the programme – only 1 per cent of last year’s total trainees. In Glasgow, all things being equal we'd expect to see one in five apprentices being from an ethnic minority - not one in a hundred. Worst of all, less than half a percent of all apprentices in Scotland are disabled. That's just one in two hundred. It should be about one in ten. 

If women, ethnic minorities and disabled people were flourishing in Scotland today this would be less of an issue. But the reality is that poverty amongst lone parents, disabled people and ethnic minorities is often higher than the Scottish average. Some surveys suggest that, whilst one in five Scots live in poverty, in the Pakistani community it’s one in four. 

So why isn't equality as much of an issue in Scotland today as inequality?

Partly it’s about place. We've all grown up with pockets of poverty in Scotland. Poverty in our post-industrial landscapes is well-documented.  

But we also know that some of our most deprived communities don't live in our most deprived areas. Pakistanis, Indians, Chinese and Bangladeshis are far less likely to live in areas of deprivation. Muslims - outside of Glasgow - are dispersed across rich and poor areas, but overall live in deeper poverty than the average.

So we face a conundrum. How do we tackle income inequality amongst some of the  most deprived if they don't live neatly in the poorest postcodes? Or if the reasons for their poverty and routes out of poverty are different from those of other poor Scots.

Recently I listened to a Scottish child poverty expert set out the three 'P's of child poverty.

• Pockets
• Prospects, and
• Places

To break the pattern of endemic poverty passed between generations, he argued that we need to take action on all fronts.

For many of those facing entrenched disadvantage, the pockets are emptier, the prospects are poorer and the places are different.

Current anti-poverty policy has much to commend it. But without care and thought, without nuance or nudge, and critically without proper scoping and monitoring, anti-poverty policies might reduce income inequality but equality could pay the price.

So, what’s the solution then? 

Well unfortunately it’s not as exciting as a new announcement or funding stream. It’s about using the law as it stands to do what it is intended to do.
The public bodies charged with reducing inequality in Scotland are also required by the Equality Act to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good community relations. One of the main ways of ensuring this is to make sure that your strategies are properly assessed for their impact on equality, or EIA as we call it.

It’s my impression, having worked on Equality duties since 2002, that most Scottish public bodies 'get' eliminating discrimination. It’s rare these days to see an obviously discriminatory policy getting passed. But for too many, I fear, that’s where the effort stops. 

The problem is that many apparently neutral policies fall on an uneven landscape. Because of historical discrimination, some communities – ethnic and religious minorities, disabled people and others – are less able to benefit. If this was never explored in the EIA process it’s unlikely that enough checks and balances will be built into the implementation phase to redress an uneven and unequal roll out. If no targets were set for disabled people’s participation in the economy, for example, there’s no way of checking whether or not the policy has actually achieved what it said it would do. For everyone. 

The equality duty does tackle this head on. Specifically the advancing equality section says that it’s not just permissible but necessary to consider how to:

• Remove or minimise disadvantages suffered by people who share protected characteristics.
• Take steps to meet the needs of people who share protected characteristics where these are different from the needs of other people.
• Encourage people who share protected characteristics to participate in public life or in other activities where their participation is disproportionately low.

No public body sets out to discriminate. But if they don’t follow the equality duty it’s likely that they may end up having a discriminatory impact if they don’t pay attention to the basic principles of equality law. 

Ensuring that inequality policy doesn’t create greater disadvantage for people who share certain protected characteristics isn’t easy. It takes planning, inquiry, assessment and monitoring. But so does any policy if you want it to be successful.  

And it’s vitally necessary if we are going to create the sort of Scotland where everyone can flourish.