Mind the gaps

by Colin Douglas

Published: 30 Oct 2015

After much detailed work, the Commission have produced an assessment of the state of fairness in Britain. And for the first time, we have looked at equality and human rights progress together and are able to see change over time. Published on 30 October 2015, Is Britain Fairer? is the most comprehensive analysis of its kind conducted anywhere in the world. This 100 page report provides a rich source of evidence that will support policy makers to focus on some of the biggest challenges facing our society.

To get to this point has involved 15 researchers and statisticians working flat out to produce 10 detailed evidence papers (each of 100-250 pages), covering 43 equality and human rights indicators, underpinned by dozens of specific measures, which cover most of the nine protected characteristics set out in law, and reporting on them in relation to three different countries (England, Scotland and Wales).

We have drawn on hundreds of other quantitative and qualitative sources including reports by inspectorates, parliamentary committees, international bodies, NGOs and academics. And just to make sure that we did not miss the wood for the trees, we stood back at several points and engaged with over 240 organisations across England, Scotland and Wales to check that we hadn’t overlooked any key issues. If you have been involved, we would like to thank you for your important contributions.

All of this has helped us to describe where improvements have been made, and where we have slipped back. But in order to make an assessment of progress, we need to be clear about what it is we are looking at. In describing fairness we have looked at the gaps in experience between different groups. A gap, in itself, is not evidence of unfairness. For example, we would expect a gap between disabled and non-disabled people in terms of reported levels of bad health, not least because the definition of disability in most surveys includes long-standing limiting illness.

But would we expect the gap to be widening over time and, if so, by how much? It is difficult to answer such a question with precision, but in this case it is worth noting two things. First, that there has been an increase over time in the proportion of disabled people who have reported bad or very bad health in England, while the proportion of non-disabled people doing so has actually decreased. And second, that this is very different from the picture in Wales (where the proportion of disabled people reporting bad health has decreased) and Scotland (where it has remained the same). The gaps may not give a full answer about what is happening or why, but they ring alarm bells that warrant attention.

And when multiple alarms ring for specific groups of people all the time (such as young people, White boys from poor backgrounds, disabled people, and Muslims, to name but a few) the need for attention is even clearer.

There is another gap that was very apparent from our work, and that is the absence of some important data. There are real risks that some groups are rendered invisible by the lack of data, and that this serves to further compound the discrimination, disadvantage, abuse or exploitation that they face. In the absence of data and clear evidence, it would be lazy to simply assume the worst. Such assumptions would also risk consuming huge sums of public resource to tackle problems that might be over-estimated, using analysis of cause that might be threadbare. But it is even worse if we collectively throw our hands in the air and refuse to tackle these problems, using the lack of data as justification for inaction.

There are gaps in data on the experience of people aged over 80, but we know there are significant health, care, and wider societal challenges that arise with aging and we should do better at understanding and addressing them. Smaller population groups such as Gypsies and Travellers are consistently identified as having poorer outcomes across many areas of life (health, education, standard of living), so the need for action to address this and the necessity for data and evidence in order to see whether things get better or worse is a no-brainer.

The purpose of reviewing progress is to challenge ourselves as a society to be as fair as we can be. We will only achieve this by paying attention to the gaps.