A UK-wide socio-economic duty will help tackle systemic poverty as we re-build from Covid
The socio-economic duty being introduced will help us reopen the economy in a way that protects the most deprived communities, raises living standards, and builds a fairer, more prosperous country.
This week Wales takes a significant step into the post-Covid era. Not only are the “stay local” restrictions being lifted and outdoor activities starting to reopened but a new initiative is being introduced to tackle systemic poverty: the socio-economic duty.
This significant piece of legislation, which has been supported by Welsh Conservatives, will help us to reopen our economy in a way that protects the most deprived communities, raises living standards, and builds a fairer, more prosperous Wales for all.
This is badly needed. Even before Coronavirus, in Wales one in four were living in poverty and three in ten children were growing up in a deprived household. Wages in Wales are also lower in every sector compared to the rest of the UK. These factors have been compounded by the slowdown in economic activity, rising levels of unemployment, and increased reliance on social security precipitated by the pandemic.
The new socio-economic duty will seek to address these systemic problems. It will require every public body - including departments of the Welsh Government – to consider how they can address socioeconomic inequality in their strategies, policies, and programmes. The total annual budget of public bodies in Wales is £33 billion and 28% of our population is employed by a public institution. The socioeconomic duty will unleash that power and influence against the behemoth of institutionalised poverty.
But this policy is not only relevant to Wales. Scotland has already introduced a similar duty and there is merit in the Westminster government considering the extension of this initiative to the whole of the UK.
It’s about having honest conversations about the sometimes-intransigent problems of poverty and inequality, and developing transformative policies to deal with them
While I know my colleagues in the UK Parliament are absolutely committed to reducing poverty - through mechanisms such as the Living Wage, Universal Credit, and increased SEND funding - we have to acknowledge that doing so is a complex and knotty problem that requires multiple strategies and approaches.
22% of the UK still lives in poverty and that figure may well have risen as a result of Covid. A UK-wide socioeconomic duty could help us to reduce that statistic and bring more people into a state of financial security. It would also be popular: polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics found that over half (56%) would like the UK government to enact the Duty.
Introducing the Duty would, as far as legislation goes, be relatively easy: the duty already sits on the statute books as part of the 2010 Equality Act but it has never been implemented. A decade on and facing the impact on lives and livelihoods of the pandemic it is time that this was addressed, and public bodies were fully engaged in our fight to eradicate poverty.
Firstly, because as I have already mentioned, public bodies wield considerable influence. 7 million people in the UK are employed in the public sector and the work they do extends across the length and breadth of the UK and into almost every community. No one is left untouched by the public sector. Imagine for a moment what a difference we could make if every one of those institutions and their employees was recruited to help us tackle poverty and socioeconomic inequality.
Secondly, because this duty provides us with a framework to answer the very difficult questions we now face about spending priorities. With public finances impacted by the pandemic, the spending decisions made by every public body will be - rightly - scrutinised in forensic detail. The socioeconomic duty can be seen as a matrix which helps decision-makers assess the social value of their spending commitments and strategic decisions.
Ultimately this will help ensure that public bodies are not just spending taxpayer money on the symptoms of problems, but also investing it in a fairer, healthier, and more prosperous UK to tackle the causes on a preventative agenda.
Thirdly, the duty is empowering. Governments are always looking to work more closely with the private and third sectors, hoping to unleash their creativity and ingenuity on the social problems of the day. However, public bodies also have a wealth of experience and understanding - not to mention the benefit of public trust - that can be put to good purpose. The duty is just one example of how that can be achieved.
Finally, I believe the duty carries enormous symbolic value. In fact, to call it a duty somewhat betrays its positive message. For it is much more than a duty: it is a commitment, a partnership, an ambition. It is about new ways of working with people, ingenuity, and creativity. It’s about having honest conversations about the sometimes-intransigent problems of poverty and inequality, and developing transformative policies to deal with them.
I am proud that the Welsh Conservatives in Wales have championed this cause in the Senedd and I would be happy to engage with my Westminster colleagues regarding this.
Mark Isherwood the Welsh Conservative Member of the Senedd for North Wales and Shadow Minister for Finance.