Time to go big on equality

Whoever wins the election on December 12th, the new government will have a golden opportunity to harness the billions of pounds promised for infrastructure investment to increase equality for us all. To do this they need to build in systematic, practical actions that drive up employment rates for women, disabled people and ethnic minority communities.

This is from Ali Harris, our chief executive, on how the new government, whoever they are, must make the most of infrastructure investment.

They’re all doing it. Promising billions of pounds of investment into massive infrastructure projects. Labour’s manifesto commits to £250bn Green Transformation Fund to support the development of a cleaner economy and a pledge for one million green jobs. The LibDems promise £130 billion investment in infrastructure to upgrade transport and energy systems, plus build schools, hospitals and houses. And the Tories have pledged £100bn investment on road, rail and other infrastructure, as well as the UK Shared Prosperity fund to replace EU funding.

The new government will have an important choice to make. They could choose to spend all of this money in the usual way that perpetuates long term inequalities in the workforce. Or they could make a smarter choice and build into infrastructure programmes the targets and practical actions that create opportunity and drive up employment rates for women, disabled people, ethnic minority communities and others facing barriers to employment.

Good intentions will not make these opportunities happen, any more than it will build new roads and hospitals. Research into the 2012 Olympics and major EU structural programmes has shown that consistently building specific equality conditions into contracts and following through on delivery is what gets results.

The practical conditions and actions that lead to these changes include infrastructure programmes systematically setting participation targets for women, disabled and ethnic minority people that are appropriate to local demographics; and using positive action through outreach, training and support to help meet the targets.

Our recent film shows how building equality condition into EU funding programmes has made a real difference in people’s lives. People like Kate, who has autism, who was supported to set up her own successful business and says: “I was in this state where I wasn’t leaving the house, I didn’t want to talk to anybody… I went from being this shy person, to being entrepreneur of the year”.

Businesses like these conditions as they create a level playing field in the bidding process rather than a race to the bottom. They enable employers to invest in diverse people and communities, which is better for business for the long term. They can generate partnerships between business and the voluntary sector, which in turn helps the voluntary sector thrive and help more people.

Do we really need to do this? Well, a business as usual approach isn’t enough. Although employment rates have grown overall, the UK continues to be held back by equality employment gaps. Disabled people face a 30% gap, ethnic minority people a 12% gap (which hides a wide variation across different ethnicities and regions), and women an 8.7% gap.

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 had a paid job in the 12 months preceding the survey.

We currently pay a high price for women’s and minority communities’ under-representation in the labour market. But if we make systematic, practical changes, the economic opportunities are as significant as the opportunities to change people’s lives. At the macro level, a 5% rise in the employment rate of disabled people could increase GDP by £23 billion by 2030. Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review of race in the workplace found the economy could receive a £24bn boost if employers made the most of ethnic minority talent. And bridging women’s employment gap could create an extra £150 billion in GDP in 2025.

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