Recent developments in the public sector make it easy for the average bystander to conclude that equality and diversity is losing its importance for local authorities. Following ten years of rather prescriptive regulation, the last two years have seen statutory obligations around equality & diversity rapidly falling away. In came budget cuts and out went officers with responsibilities for equalities. In many cases the work is not fully picked up by remaining staff. More recently, equality monitoring surveys have come under attack as being costly, ‘unnecessary, and intrusive’. Furthermore, demand for assessments to be completed under the Equality Framework has dropped drastically.
Despite all of these difficulties, there remains a strong argument that equality and diversity is still relevant to local authorities’ work for legal, practical, and moral reasons.
The Equality Act 2010 imposes a single equality duty upon the public sector, under which local authorities have certain responsibilities. While there are less rigid structures in place to govern how the councils will meet their duties, they are still obliged to demonstrate their compliance with the Equality Act. Indeed, if a council were challenged under a judicial review, it would have to satisfy a court that it has met its legal requirements.
Every local authority in the country aims to provide public services which meet its residents’ needs. Taking full account of equality and diversity issues into consideration is part of understanding that different residents have different types of needs. Using this information allows councils to effectively target their resources and services. Focusing on equalities is still relevant to councils because it helps them to deliver better services to local residents.
Equalities should still matter to local authorities because Britain remains a deeply unequal society. Women are still paid less than men in similar positions. Homophobic bullying remains a real problem and this summer’s riots suggest that racial divides remain. Local authorities need to ensure that their policies and services tackle rather than further entrench equality and discrimination. The social and economic importance of this is demonstrated by analysis such as that published in the ‘Spirit Level’ , which illustrates that more unequal societies do worse on almost every quality of life indicator.
Heather Cover, Equality and Diversity Management Analyst, West Lindsey District Council and Centre for Local Policy Studies, Edge Hill University