The Prime Minister today has promised a new deal ‘to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges’. How can we be sure it will really tackle the unresolved challenge of inequality, asks our chief executive, Ali Harris?
With this announcement, the Government has a golden opportunity to harness the billions of pounds of infrastructure investment to increase equality for us all.
In his recent speech Michael Gove rightly recognised that the Covid pandemic has ‘tragically underlined the racial and ethnic inequalities in many societies, not least our own within the United Kingdom… there can be no doubt that they reflect structural inequality in our society which has to be addressed’.
An important place to start is the money announced today, which gives the government a critical choice to make.
Either they can spend the money in the usual ways that perpetuate long-term structural inequalities in the workforce. Or they can make a smarter choice and invest in equality to drive up opportunities and employment rates for people from ethnic minority communities, women, Disabled people and others of us who face barriers to and in employment.
They can build into the new infrastructure programmes the targets and practical actions that will prevent discrimination and create opportunities for countless people who will otherwise – yet again – be left behind.
Good intentions will not make these opportunities happen, any more than they will build new roads and hospitals.
Research into the 2012 Olympics and other major structural programmes which focused on equality shows that consistently building specific equality conditions into contracts and following through on delivery is what gets results.
The conditions that lead to these changes include setting participation targets for women, Disabled, BAME and marginalised LGBT people that are appropriate to local demographics; and using positive action through outreach, training and support to meet the targets.
The research showed that businesses welcome this approach, as it enables them to do the right thing for their business and the community, factoring costs into their bottom line while keeping a level playing field with competitors.
And that the voluntary sector has had – and must continue to have – a vital role in these types of infrastructure programmes, working alongside employers to support people who face disadvantage and discrimination in the labour market.
Do we really need to do this?
Even before the pandemic the evidence showed a business as usual approach that does not build in equality won’t get the results we need. Although employment rates have grown overall, the UK continues to be held back by equality employment gaps.
Data on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) people is not routinely collected so their employment rates are less clear. However, the 2018 LGBT survey found trans people were significantly less likely to have a paid job in 12 months preceding the survey.
The coronavirus crisis also says yes. Black and minority ethnic people are more likely to die from Covid-19. Mothers are more likely to have had their career disrupted than fathers and to bear most of the additional childcare. Disabled people report failures by employers to introduce the reasonable adjustments without which many will be pushed out of the labour market.
Such inequalities could have been avoided had equality been built into the Government’s approach to the pandemic from the start. The country will pay an even higher price if the Government does not take the opportunity now to address these inequalities and employment gaps.
At the macro level, a 5% rise in the employment rate of Disabled people could increase GDP by £23 billion. Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review of race in the workplace found the economy could receive a £24 billion boost if employers made the most of ethnic minority talent. And bridging the women’s employment gap could create an extra £150 billion in GDP.
In the face of the threats to the economy, we can’t afford to miss out on the boost that building equality into the design and delivery of the investment programmes announced today would bring. The economic opportunities are as significant as the opportunities to change people’s lives.
Today’s announcement gives the Government a real chance to tackle the existing inequalities many people face and to help us all recover. Our ability to build back better depends on it.