The Government says that: ‘equality is at the heart of this coalition Government. It is fundamental to building a strong economy and a fair society.'' However, the evidence for this commitment is far from compelling and the current political climate is a challenging one for equality.
The Government is moving away from equality legislation that has been developed over many years. Theresa May, the Equalities Minister, has stated that the Government favour 'a greater focus on "fairness" rather than "equality", arguing that many people felt alienated by the equality agenda'. Equality is rather unhelpfully being presented as a bureaucratic burden, rather than as a means of improving our society and tackling the inequalities that are well evidenced in all social indicators.
Fairness has no legislative framework in the way that equality does and this shift undermines equality of opportunity and the protection of human rights. Fairness lacks legal definition and as such is a highly contestable notion and one that provides a vehicle for making moral and politicised judgements. The subjective nature of fairness can be seen through David Cameron's statement that: ‘Fairness means giving people what they deserve and what people deserve depends on how they behave'
This is being done as there is a shift to a new Big Society accountability, which promotes a vision of a vibrant voluntary and community sector challenging unequal outcomes. However, there are potential problems with this approach.
This briefing explores this further
"I am a confirmed localist, committed to turning
Britain's pyramid of power on its head.”
(David Cameron, 17 Feb 2009, The Guardian)
Localism is a key Government principle and agenda.
As a principle, Localism is about giving more power to local people and local institutions while addressing the over-centralisation of Government. It runs throughout the rhetoric of Government policy, intertwined with "decentralisation”, and is put forward as a core principle. For instance, the Health Reforms talk about giving local GPs more power, and building a bottom-up process rather than imposing a top-down framework.
For some, localism and decentralisation can be used to justify actions that are likely to dismantle the state. For others, localism is an agenda that local communities and the local voluntary and community sector should seek to develop and take more control over.
Arguably, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) is doing most to define what Localism is and how it should be developed as a formal agenda in its own right. DCLG are the sponsor department for the The Localism Bill which will provide the legal foundation for the localism agenda.
VSNW has produced an excellent resource to support organisations to speak to their MPs about some of the key challenges. This can be found here: http://www.vsnw.org.uk/files/Getting%20the%20Localism%20Bill%20Right%202.pdf
VSNW’s guide to the Localism Bill, highlights six key areas to the Bill and proposes six principles that could shape and define "Localism”:
Principle 1: "That Localism is open and inclusive for all local people"
Principle 2: "Communities should have a say in making decisions that affect them"
Principle 3: "Local services should be shaped by and accountable to local communities"
Principle 4: "That Localism promotes a caring and broad sense of community"
Principle 5: "That the assets of the state are owned on behalf of our communities"
Principle 6: "That Localism builds local strength without becoming solely inward-looking"
The report, A Big or Divided Society is based on hearings which took place earlier this year in parliament where Gypsies, Travellers, service providers, legal and academic experts gave evidence on the implications of proposed government policy. The hearings were organised around the themes of accommodation planning, enforcement, health, children, welfare and education issues related to accommodation. And highlighted concerns including:
Lord Avebury told IRR News: 'Eric Pickles, the minister responsible for Gypsies and Travellers, has torn up the strategy that had been developed over the last six years of the previous government, riding roughshod over Liberal Democrat policy of keeping the target numbers of pitches. Now, it's up to every local authority to decide how much land it will allocate for Gypsy sites and, inevitably, most of them will scale down the numbers or eliminate them altogether as in the case of London. At the same time they are encouraging local authorities to evict Gypsies from unauthorised sites at enormous cost in bailiffs and police. And the pupil premium, intended to help disadvantaged children, will leave out many Gypsy children who don't attend school because their families have been evicted and they're on the roadside.'
Susan Alexander of the Travellers Aid Trust commented: 'For a number of years there have been sustained efforts by politicians and councils across the political spectrum to work in partnership with Gypsy Roma Traveller communities and improve their access to services, make them part of the community and reduce tensions. However, genuine fears are expressed in the report that the Localism Bill currently passing through parliament could mean greater local opposition to sites and services for this minority and run counter to the ideals of a Big Society
For the interim report, please see: http://www.travellersaidtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-BIG-OR-DIVIDED-SOCIETY-Interim-Report.pdf
The ‘Listening Exercise' is well underway with the Future Forum already filling twitter and on line forums with opportunities to respond. VSNW will be supporting the sector in the North West to respond but we would also encourage you to make your own contributions – see below for how to take part. A couple of papers which might help inform your thoughts are
VSNW along with our colleagues in Regional Voices has been concerned for sometime about third sector representation on Health and Wellbeing Boards. Regional Voices wrote to Andrew Lansley requesting that more guidance be given to local authorities on third sector involvement.
The response was not as positive as we would have wished and highlighted that the sector should look to have an increased role in the development of Joint Strategic Needs Assessments (JSNA). VSNW are keen to hear of your experiences regarding involvement in the ongoing development of the new Health and Wellbeing Boards as well as with JSNA's. A JSNA Best Practice Guide: Springboard for Action has been produced for the new Health & Wellbeing Boards and is a useful resource in explaining JSNA's and their anticipated increased importance. Download from: www.vsnw.org.uk/activities/health
Margaret McLeod – Policy and Network Officer (Health and Social Care) email: Margaret.email@example.com
One North West supports the Government’s aim of making equality more meaningful. However, we feel that the policy review paper’s proposals to remove key elements of the delegated legislation that is intended to give effect to the specific equality duties will undermine this aim. It will also contradict the Government’s commitment outlined in the Equality Strategy that: ‘Equality is at the heart of this Government.'
The evidence of inclusion and transparent decision making is not arbitrary bureaucracy or part of ‘unnecessary process requirements’, but rather, a critical function of democratically accountable governance. The proposed changes will serve to weaken equality objectives and undermine the aims of promoting democratic accountability, transparency and the effective and efficient delivery of public services to all communities in a way that promotes the general duty.
For the full response please see here
Plans to replace the Education Maintenance Allowance could lead to unintended discrimination, according to a government equalities assessment.
It says discrimination could occur because schools and colleges will decide which students get bursaries.
Sixteen to 19-year-olds in full-time education or training will be able to apply for the money for the coming academic year.
The assessment says the government is considering "some central arbitration".
The Equality Impact Assessment says the process is open to unintended discrimination on the basis of disability, gender or ethnicity.
The Department for Education is to set up bursaries totalling £180m a year to replace the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which was worth £500m a year.
They are designed to help young people who face financial difficulties stay on in education.
Announcing the plans to the House of Commons in March, Education Secretary Michael Gove said schools and colleges would have the freedom to allocate the bursaries because they were best placed to know the specific needs of their students.
He added then: "We will give professionals full flexibility over allocating support."
Andy Burnham, shadow education secretary responded saying: 'He has taken a successful scheme that was good value for the taxpayer and turned it into a complete shambles”
The Impact Assessment says : "We will consider whether there should be some central arbitration of the discretionary administration of funding or at least ensure transparency of administration to evaluate the impact achieved by providers, including value for public money."
A Department for Education spokesman said: "As we have always said schools and college will have freedom in how they allocate the bursaries to their students. We want to work with colleges to make sure that money is fairly allocated.
"The fact is consultation has not yet finished but we will consider what mechanism might help support colleges and students in making sure the money gets to those who need it."
The government's consultation on how the bursary scheme will work comes to an end this month.
The assessment goes on to say the new scheme will deliver better value for money. It says while some young people will get less money there is no evidence the changes in financial support will have a disproportionate effect on those with disabilities, learning difficulties, or on either gender or those of different ethnicities.
The shadow education secretary Andy Burnham said: "Michael Gove promised a better scheme for the poorest young people but now his own department says it is open to discrimination.
"He has taken a successful scheme that was good value for the taxpayer and turned it into a complete shambles."
James Mills, from the campaign to keep the EMA, said: "We have been saying since day one that there would be grave equality issues brought up by removing EMA and the government has finally admitted this by whispering it out in their own Equality Impact Assessment hoping no one would notice."
For the response please see:
Ramona Constantin moved to Manchester in 2009, just as simmering resentment towards the Roma people was at its peak. "The Roma people were very scared – they would only go out to earn money and shop, and the rest of the time would stay locked up in their homes," she recalls. "Some wouldn't open their windows in case things were thrown in."
Now 26, she came to the UK in search of a better life and joined a community of up to 1,000 Romanian Roma in the terrace streets of Longsight, south Manchester.
No official figures exist but as many as half a million Roma from various countries may have moved to the UK over recent years, according to research by the advocacy group Equality. While all tend to be economically and socially marginalised, tough restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians – so-called A2 migrants – limit them to self-employment which, combined with their often low education levels, leaves many Roma struggling to make ends meet.
Large numbers – including Constantin and her partner – have ended up selling the Big Issue in the North. Around half of all the magazine's vendors in northern England are Roma. In Manchester, a handful of others sell flowers on the streets, busk, collect scrap metal or work as cleaners.
But there have been objections to Roma selling the magazine. Simon Ashley, a councillor for Gorton South and leader of Manchester city council's Liberal Democrat opposition, is among those unhappy that by registering as vendors, they get a National Insurance number, and with it access to certain benefits.
Gateway to benefits
"I believe the Big Issue is allowing itself to be used as a gateway to benefits dependency," he says. "These people aren't homeless – they are all in houses. But because they've found a loophole which gives them access to benefits, selling the magazine is now an end in itself and not about genuine self-employment."
While A2 migrants may not claim jobseeker's allowance or income support until they have worked in the UK without interruption for 12 months, being self-employed – as all Big Issue vendors are – means they can apply for in-work benefits such as tax credits and, in some cases, housing benefit. In the absence of sufficient evidence of earnings, however, these payments are denied.
Caroline Price, director of the Big Issue in the North, insists that Romanian vendors are vulnerably housed, and as such fall into the remit of the magazine, since without this source of income most would struggle to live. "The fact is, these people are permitted to be self-employed and they are entitled to those [benefits] payments at present," she says. "That's an issue for the government, but if we don't allow this we are condemning them to life below the poverty line."
In Manchester, it is recognised that the prospects of the Roma people must be raised if community cohesion is to improve in the long term. As their numbers increased, frustration among some local people grew, with complaints about noise, aggressive begging, rubbish being dumped on the streets, truancy and overcrowding, as large extended families crammed into small rented houses. Tempers flared, and the community meetings called by the police and council to discuss the problems frequently ended in shouting matches.
But a concerted effort by the council, the NHS and the police to help Roma people integrate better into Manchester is slowly making an impact. The council's strategy group, set up in 2009, with representation from all the organisations working with Roma residents, has drafted extra police officers and cleaners into Longsight and children have been found school places.
Intensive outreach work to explain what was expected of Roma households in terms of schooling, rubbish disposal and general behaviour is starting to bear fruit. In addition, projects to remove barriers to work and provide role models have got under way.
Advice sessions support Roma to access legal employment. Most Romanian Roma in Manchester are unaware that if one householder holds a yellow card, the UK work permit that entitles A2 migrants to be self-employed, other relatives can apply for a blue card – which gives them access to the jobs market.
Meanwhile, two community members have been recruited to work with new Roma pupils in classrooms across Manchester, in a scheme aimed at improving the children's confidence. And the Black Health Agency (BHA), commissioned by the council to deliver outreach services, has employed a Roma social worker on its team, alongside its other family workers.
A spokesman for Manchester city council says: "We have been working very closely with the Roma community in Manchester to help them settle and integrate into the city. This has been done with the support, co-operation and involvement of the people already living in the areas where the Roma people have come to. The vast majority have settled well, work hard and make a valuable contribution to the city."
Meanwhile, Constantin is one of a small group with fluent English who have taken part in a six-month paid training programme delivered by the Big Issue in the North, in partnership with Manchester University, BHA and the council. Despite having no formal education, she now combines selling the magazine with working with Sure Start and Citizens Advice and is registered as a freelance interpreter.
"Before they had seen me working at Sure Start, the Roma people would never have thought it could be possible, but now they have a good example," she says. "When an organisation like Sure Start takes on a Roma person they are not employing one – they are employing 30 or 40. Not in that second, but in the future. They are giving hope to the whole community."
But cuts could jeopardise the progress made. The BHA outreach service funded through Manchester city council ended last month with no final decision over whether it will be recommissioned, while the money for its three outreach workers ends at the end of the year.
Constantin has applied for her blue card and hopes to use her new-found skills to support her community. She will soon bring her four-year-old daughter to the UK from Romania, so she can start school.
"Roma people are not bad, they are just scared," Constantin says. "They deserve a chance – let them go to school, let them work normally and then judge them."
Voice4Change England has not been short of sympathy since it lost £276,000 of Office for Civil Society funding last month.
Several organisations have expressed surprise at the potentially fatal loss of income for the policy group for black and minority ethnic charities, and have praised its work.
But the gap between warm words and actually campaigning for a U-turn by the OCS appears to be so wide that few are willing to cross it.
Voice4Change has asked eight of the nine voluntary organisations chosen for the new £8.2m strategic partner transition fund to support its campaign, which calls on the OCS to reinstate it as a partner and use the £800,000 that had been allocated to support equality organisations.
The group includes influential bodies such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the chief executives body Acevo and Volunteering England. The Institute of Fundraising was not approached because Voice4Change had no previous contact with it.
"I'm not overwhelmed by the response," says Vandna Gohil, director of Voice4Change. She says one or two have written to the civil society minister, Nick Hurd, but the only organisation she singles out for praise is the local infrastructure group Navca and its chief executive, Kevin Curley.
The OCS did not fund any equality charities and Gohil believes the voluntary sector should take a stand against this. "I do feel the strategic partners have a responsibility," says Gohil. "For me, this is a watershed moment as to whether they stand up for equalities. Quite a few were keen to have a sentence in their bids saying they were keen to work with Voice4Change, which now seems like a tick-box exercise because it hasn't materialised when it matters."
Voice4Change has also started a petition to support its campaign, which has about 300 signatures, and Virendra Sharma, Labour MP for Ealing Southall, has tabled an early day motion in the Commons that has so far attracted 20 signatories.
Gohil fears the OCS decision reflects a misguided approach in government towards equality. Ministers, she says, increasingly want to use mainstream groups to promote equality rather than continue to rely on groups with a specific remit for race, gender, disability or sexuality.
"There is a complete change of ideology," says Gohil. "But when you look at the nine organisations that have been funded - and no disrespect to them - they are big, established organisations that don't in any sense represent the diversity of the sector.
"What equalities groups are the government going to consult with? We want to be able to influence government policy, but it doesn't look like it will happen."
Voice4Change and the Women's Resource Centre, another unsuccessful bidder, are considering a legal challenge to the OCS.
Gohil claims the OCS equality impact assessment was vague and did not answer some questions fully. "Given the enormity of what's at stake, they haven't considered the impact on groups with the rigour they should have," she says.
The stakes are certainly high for Voice4Change, which has been brought to its knees by the loss of funding from the OCS and the now-defunct infrastructure quango Capacitybuilders at the same time. "The reality is we might not be here in three to six months," says Gohil.
The OCS has indicated it isn't prepared to reinstate Voice4Change or dip into the under-spend, saying £8.2m is enough for the programme to achieve its objectives. So Gohil faces an almighty challenge: "But we owe it to our stakeholders and people who have confidence in us to make sure we don't just accept a completely unfair and unjust decision."
The demise of Capacitybuilders has weakened the nine regional BME networks that it funded to support BME charities. The Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations said its future was precarious after it also lost strategic partner funding.
Now Voice4Change, which has seven staff at its London base, also faces the precipice. It was founded in 2007 by 19 collaborating organisations that felt the BME voice wasn't being heard at policy level, and it received charitable status only this year. "We are the embodiment of that vision," says Gohil. "There wasn't any other organisation representing the diversity of the BME sector."
Gohil prefers to see all this as an opportunity for independent funders to show their support for equality, but she knows time is against her. "I'm an optimist and a realist, and I have faith," she says. "The strategic partners and the big society cannot ignore the BME community."
In his speech to Conservative party members in Hampshire, Cameron highlighted the important role that the English language plays in good integration through binding 'real communities' together in 'common experiences ... forged by friendship and conversation' so that when 'significant numbers of new people' arrive in neighbourhoods 'perhaps not able to speak the language' neighbourhoods become more 'disjointed'.
Yet the coalition government's cuts in funding for language provision are creating the most serious crisis for the future of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) that has ever been seen. So says the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults (NATECLA). The changes in access to ESOL courses, confirmed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in February will mean that from September, free access to courses will be available only to those on work-related benefits - Jobseekers' Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA). Migrant workers and their families are ineligible for these benefits, as they may not have 'recourse to public funds', and asylum seekers, who have no access to mainstream benefits, are also ineligible. Access to ESOL classes will be available only to refugees and those migrants with settled status - but only if they register for work. Older refugees, single parents with young children, carers and others unable to work, who are on income support, will be eligible only for half-funding. They will have to find over £1,000 a year, which almost by definition will be impossible.
Those in employment, too, will no longer get free ESOL classes. The government argues that employers who want their staff to learn English will fund classes for them, or employees can pay for it themselves if they want it - which ignores the fact that refugees in particular can frequently find only low-wage employment. In areas such as Tower Hamlets and Rochdale, ESOL tutors are predicting a seventy to eighty per cent reduction in numbers attending courses.
NATECLA, which has organised a huge campaign against the cuts together with the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), the Refugee Council, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) and others, says, 'If the government truly wants people to integrate and be part of the "big society" then language is the key. ESOL learners are keen to learn the language and integrate into society but in order to do this they need programmes that enable them to do so.'
But the truth is that the government does not truly want people to integrate. Or at least, it is not interested in isolated and socially excluded non-English speakers such as asylum seekers, migrant women with young children, low-paid workers and refugees unable to enter the job market. The message is that migrants and refugees are in the UK on our terms - as Liz Fekete noted, Cameron's Munich speech in February sent 'a signal that government policy in future will not be built on pluralism or integration but monoculturalism, assimilation, exclusion'. It is noteworthy in this context that although the welfare cuts have generally hit the poorest people across the board, the ESOL cuts (as London Action for ESOL representative Roberto Foth pointed out) are by definition targeted at non-native speakers, while literacy and numeracy classes aimed at native speakers will continue to be free.
The ESOL policy is of a piece with the attack on equality symbolised by the sixty per cent cut in funding to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and the immigration caps and restrictions on international students' entry to the UK for non-degree (generally English-language) courses. These policies have no discernible economic rationale - the Confederation of British Industry and other business leaders have expressed concern over the immigration cap, and the student restrictions have provoked cries of anguish in the higher education sector, with leading universities complaining that they will lose many students who undertake English-language classes first.
At the same time as the ESOL cuts, the rules have been changed so that it is now compulsory for anyone seeking settlement as a worker to pass an English language test. And migrants' spouses and partners abroad will have to pass the test to come for settlement - so that migrants settled in the UK can only have their husband, wife or partner join them here for settlement if or when the partner speaks English to a reasonable standard; until then they must stay apart. 'No sex please - we're not British'?
Action for ESOL groups have been set up across the country, and organised a parliamentary lobby, a briefing for MPs and many local actions. A parliamentary Early Day Motion opposing the ESOL cuts has been sponsored by Paul Blomfield MP (and supported by David Blunkett MP!) and has twenty-five signatories. The campaign against the cuts has been adopted as formal policy by UCU, and some London local authorities have lent vigorous support to the anti-cuts campaign.
... But not from Leicester
But at least one local authority is far from supportive. According to reports, Leicester City Council is threatening ESOL tutors with dismissal if they participate in protest action, or speak to the press about funding cuts, and the local paper, the Leicester Mercury, has surprisingly remained completely silent on the issue, despite its circulation covering an area with a large immigrant population which will be very hard hit by the cuts.