In summary, there is a need to improve data and equalities analysis that can provide meaningful evaluation of policies; better awareness and integration of the Public Sector Equality Duty; and improved processes across government to provide the checks and balances with regard to equality.
Data and analysis
Firstly, the centre needs to overcome institutional attitudes towards ‘equalities’ which is seen as a discrete ‘diversity and inclusion’ exercise. Rather equalities analysis is complex and rich and can inform qualitative assessments if a policy is value for ‘society’, not just value for money. Equalities analysis can be intricate, especially if there is a lack of diversity of thought within the organisation. To support Civil Servants better, there should be central government guidance on evaluating the equalities impact of policies in a similar fashion to the Treasury’s “Green Book”, which would plug the capability gaps in the Civil Service and ensure that public policy addresses structural inequality methodically.
The lack of disaggregated data hinders progress on equality, as meaningful analysis cannot be conducted without robust and timely datasets. COVID-19 revealed the importance of real-time data driving policy decisions at pace, and a repository of real-time disaggregated data by ethnicity could have resulted in a better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities. The UK is also home to a diverse set of ethnic communities that have chosen to settle and contribute to our society. The current broad race disaggregation of ethnic groups into broadly White, Mixed, Asian, Black and Other and the 18 sub-categories within these, fails to recognise the nuances between ethnic groups that have their own distinct identities. This results in a sizable proportion of the ethnic minorities whose histories and identities are not recognised in the UK and subsequently their experiences are overlooked in government. Therefore, Government Departments including the Office for National Statistics should be mandated to collect and publish disaggregated data by ethnicity and other protected characteristics to facilitate policy that is not equality blind, as well as commit to consulting and researching the best sub-categories of ethnicity to ensure that the government are meaningfully measuring demographic characteristics in the UK.
Better awareness of the PSED
The Public Sector Equalities Duty 2010 underpinned by the Equalities Act, requires all public bodies from the government to local schools to show ‘due regard’ on how policies impact people with protected characteristics. Although this has been a duty that departments are legally obliged to comply with since 2010, there is a lack of organisation-wide commitment to PSED and a worrying deficiency in equalities capability among Officials. Departments typically carry out an equalities impact assessment when implementing legislation that is published, however it is not carried out systematically across all policies.
There is great potential in the PSED being used as a vehicle to raise better awareness amongst policymakers to take equalities assessments more seriously. There should be greater oversight from the ECHR which should have greater powers to review and track departments that are complying with the duty and reform those that are not. In turn, to support policymakers, there could be further cross-government training and development from the Government Legal Department to all Officials on how to understand and navigate the PSED. There is also merit in having a body which includes civil society, grassroots organisations, and citizens that the government can rely on to stress test various policy ideas with their real world experience. Co-producing policy with experts and citizens will generate a sense of public ownership at a time when the role of institutions are scrutinised, however this must be balanced with political appetite too.
The PSED legislation is almost 11 years old, and there is now an opportunity to refresh the legislation to modernise the framework to include intersectionality issues too. An intersectionality approach to measuring impacts of potential policies would encourage policy makers to consider the inter-related risks between different protected groups. For example, 6 out of 10 key workers were Women and 43% of key workers are BME, looking at both groups together, evidence shows BME women were disproportionately impacted due to their multiple identities.
Creating better processes across government
In the same way that Union considerations are given importance, equalities impacts should also be given a similar standing and fed directly into the policy making process. As such, there should be better processes across government and particularly at the centre, which relies on checks and balances rather than individuals to review equality impacts and whether it complies with the PSED before decision making. This also has the effect of presenting advice to Ministers that is truly objective based on wide ranging evidence thus reducing the likelihood of confirmation bias.
For example, Civil Servants that secretariat cabinet committees in the cabinet secretariat can play a more active role in pressing departments with better quality cabinet papers, to include analysis on ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged groups. However, in order for this recommendation to have a material impact, senior leaders should embed a requirement to check for equalities analysis, and ensure that Ministers receive detailed equalities information before making decisions.