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Harman: Socio-economic duty crucial to equality

Harman: Socio-economic duty crucial to equality

News Release issued by the COI News Distribution Service on 08 January 2010

The Government today published details about how the socio-economic duty, a key part of the Equality Bill, will transform the way public bodies work to narrow the gaps between rich and poor and make society fairer.

The socio-economic duty - clause one of the Equality Bill - sets out a new legal duty on key public bodies, including central government and local authorities, to ensure they consider the impact that their strategic decisions will have on narrowing socio-economic inequalities. The duty will be debated during committee stage in the House of Lords on Monday (11 January 2010).

With the average life expectancy in the poorest areas of the country up to 13 years shorter than in the most affluent areas, the new socio-economic duty will require public bodies to consider how they will reduce the barriers that hold people back, block aspirations and prevent people fulfilling their potential.

Today’s policy statement on how the duty will operate provides examples of best practice, including:

Education: Knowing that children who eat well perform better at school, but that children from poorer backgrounds are less likely to do this, Newham council is running a pilot scheme to provide free school meals to all primary school children. They take this approach because a significant number of children in Newham are from deprived backgrounds and providing free meals for all children helps them to increase take up by tackling the stigma that can go hand in hand with free school meals. All families save money, and all children get a nutritious meal once a day, benefiting both their health and their behaviour.

Health: After studying data which shows that life expectancy is lower in the 70 most deprived local authorities around the country, the Department of Health has taken action. They are providing tailored, intensive support to the primary care trusts in those areas, allocating them additional funding and closely tracking progress.

Ms Harman said:
"A person’s socio-economic background is still a key factor in determining their life chances – how they get on at school, the chances of continuing with their education, their employment prospects and their health.

"This new legal duty will fall on every strategic body that affects these life chances and will be a catalyst for change so that more people have a better chance to enjoy a higher standard of living.

"Improving opportunities for everyone will be at the core of all key public services, and is a crucial part of the Equality Bill.”

Socio-economic factors affect how well people do throughout their lives. The socio-economic duty is needed because:

· Poorer children (who get free school meals between the ages of seven and 14) are less likely to go onto higher education;

· Less academically able but better off children overtake more able, but poorer children by the age of six;

· The income gap between those in work continues into retirement as those in higher paid jobs are more likely to have company pension schemes, giving them financial security in retirement;

· Women generally live longer than men, but since the early 1980s poorer women have been living less long than rich men.

Socio-economic disadvantages can also reinforce and increase the inequalities associated with disability, gender and race:

· Disabled adults are twice as likely to live in low-income households as non-disabled adults;

· Half of all lone parents are in low income households, the overwhelming majority of them being women;

· Only 61% of Muslim men have jobs, compared to 80% of Christian men, and 82% of Hindu men;

· Around 70% of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds live in the most deprived wards in the country.

Many central and local Government policies are already designed to tackle the corrosive effect of socio-economic disadvantage and to narrow the gaps between rich and poor. Policies such as the national minimum wage, Sure Start, tax credits, increased pensions, rising investment in education and the focus on health inequalities are just some measures that have made a real difference.

Socio-economic inequality is the central issue examined by the National Equality Panel, chaired by Professor John Hills. The Panel has examined how factors like who you are, your family background and where you live, shape outcomes such as how much money you earn and how long you live. The Panel will present its report to Government this month.

Formal guidance on the socio-economic duty will be published by the Government Equalities Office (GEO) this summer.

Please contact the Government Equalities Office press office on 020 7276 0988.

· A fact sheet on the socio-economic duty is attached to this press notice. The socio-economic duty policy statement can be found on the GEO website at

· The socio-economic duty will apply to England, Scotland and Wales. In England, the duty covers strategic bodies and Ministers including: government departments, RDAs, local authorities, police authorities, strategic health authorities and primary care trusts.

· The Equality Bill streamlines and strengthens equality law and includes measures such as:

o A new single public sector equality duty on public bodies to consider the needs of diverse groups in the community when designing and delivering public services;

o A new power to use procurement to drive equality;

o Banning age discrimination outside the workplace, for example in financial services (insurance, credit) and in health services;

o A power to require employers with more than 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap to assist transparency;

o Extending the scope for employers to use positive action to recruit someone from an under-represented group when choosing between otherwise equal candidates;

o Enabling employment tribunals to make recommendations that affect the wider workforce and not just the victim of discrimination;

o Protecting carers from discrimination;

o Protecting breastfeeding mothers;

o Strengthening protection against discrimination for disabled people;

o Protection against discrimination because of a combination of two characteristics (known as ‘dual discrimination’)

o Tackling the misuse of pre-employment questionnaires about health or disability.

· The Government Equalities Office (GEO) is responsible for the Government’s overall strategy, legislation and priorities on equality issues. It was established in July 2007 and has direct responsibility for policy on gender equality, sexual orientation, and for integrating work on race.


Everyone benefits from a fairer, more equal society. The socio-economic duty is about providing fair opportunities for everyone, regardless of their background.


Inequality may be associated with a person’s age, gender, disability, sexual orientation or race. But in many cases it comes from social class – a person’s family background. For example, less academically able, but better off children overtake more academically able, poorer children at school by the age of six.

Socio-economic disadvantage still leads to significant inequalities – your education, your chances of getting a good job, of achieving financial capability and enjoying good health are still too dependent on your family background. This impact affects people’s opportunities from early childhood through to later life.

The socio-economic duty will ensure that Government departments and key public bodies see tackling this disadvantage as a central consideration.

This duty is not about spending more or running more programmes, it is about doing things better – planning services better, with a greater focus on those who are most disadvantaged.


The socio-economic duty - clause one of the Equality Bill - sets out a new legal duty on key public bodies, including central government and local authorities, to narrow the gaps between rich and poor. It means that these public bodies must consider the impact that their strategic decisions will have on narrowing socio-economic inequalities.

We expect this will involve:

examining evidence on socio-economic inequalities relevant to the decision;
looking at actions that would reduce inequalities;
giving appropriate consideration to those courses of action, balancing them against other policy objectives and available resources.

If a public body makes a decision which will widen the gap between rich and poor, they will need to be able to explain their rationale if asked or challenged. Compliance will monitored by the Audit Commission and inspectorates such as Ofsted, through existing mechanisms.

Individuals and groups may be able to bring a judicial review if they think that the public body has failed to perform the duty.


Many central and local Government policies already recognise the corrosive effect of socio-economic disadvantage and seek to narrow the gaps between rich and poor. This duty will ensure that this approach is considered in a systematic way by all government departments and key public bodies.

The socio-economic duty will be accompanied by detailed statutory guidance, which will be produced in the summer. We expect the duty to come into force in April 2011.


Government Equalities Office press office
Phone: 0207 276 0932

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