What do you think?
- Are we already seeing those disempowered and distanced by inequality kicking back at privilege and “authority”?
- What happens when policies actively increase disadvantage and deprivation?
- Where is the leadership and accountability to make life fairer for everyone?
Equality and fairness are in the headlines: from Theresa May’s first Prime ministerial statement and the flak around Sports Direct employment practices to the disability employment gap and the critical Equality and Human Rights Commission reports on gender pay discrimination and race inequalities. We seem to be facing increased polarisation between the influential “haves” and the disempowered “have-nots” that is already putting political, economic and social security at risk. In effect, we have structural and institutionalised inequality and discrimination – not just a side-issue of decisions but a direct consequence of policy over many decades.
My starter-for-10 answer is that the Board of every Government department, public sector body, business, charity and other organisation should have at least one person responsible for equality and fairness governance covering employment and services. This isn’t just the rather lame “champion” but a remit equivalent to financial probity, operational effectiveness etc. – and with similar accountability. With little cost, our society’s structures will get the nudge to re-focus rather than revolutionise their activities – before it gets too late to manage increasing public and customer disaffection.
Inspiration comes from the report on “Devolution and disadvantage in the Sheffield City Region: an assessment of employment, skills and welfare policies” which calls for “inclusive governance at the City Region level” covering governance of Local Economic Partnerships, other geographic levels and employment programmes – a good start but not far enough! And, of course, it feels good to have the Help to Work and Work for Yourself projects that we delivered getting coverage in this study.
Section 4 of the report describes how policies can restrict access to employment and skills support: the cuts caused by austerity measures have more negative impact on those already poor and disadvantaged (whether or not they are working). This is further exacerbated in areas of existing high deprivation such as Bolsover and Barnsley because welfare reform policies have specifically sought to reduce eligibility for disability benefits when residents within these former mining areas have higher levels of long-term health conditions. The seemingly arbitrary benefit sanction regime piles on the pain, causes mass destitution and drives many out of the benefit/back-to-work support systems – and is even more significant in the deprived areas because ESA sanction levels are higher than for JSA.
Essentially, all this describes how policy is creating an underclass of deprived and disadvantaged people increasingly detached from the structures that make our society work – it sounds like a breeding ground for dissatisfaction and dissent. Presumably there is a policy risk assessment as to the tipping point after which the misery turns in to action – and perhaps we are already at that point with the BREXIT vote being the first and, thankfully, democratic manifestation of public unrest? How long will they be able to keep the lid on before the pot boils over? How much of this is already echoed elsewhere as other countries see mass dissatisfaction with decision makers too elevated from the reality of their policies? Perhaps they need to recognise that political stability and popular engagement are as fundamental to economic strength as improving devolution and infrastructure – surely there are enough historic and global examples of what happens when the most down-trodden revolt?
Penny Melville-Brown OBE
Disability Dynamics ltd www.disabilitydynamics.co.uk
Helping disabled people to work since 2000