As charities, Just Fair and The Equality Trust continue to campaign for the socio-economic duty to be included in the UK’s equalities legislation, some public bodies, including Wigan Council, are taking matters into their own hands. Councillor Paula Wakefield, Lead Member for Equalities and Domestic Violence at Wigan Council, explains why in Wigan Borough, a key consideration when developing new policies, is now the impact the policy will have on lower income households.
I understand from personal experience the effect that coming from a lower income family can have on your life.
My own family were in a relatively stable situation financially until my father died when I was 13. He had received blood products contaminated with Hepatitis B and C as well as HIV as part of a treatment he had for his Haemophilia. He went on to die from Hepatitis C.
It was the early 90’s and there was massive stigma and discrimination surrounding those conditions at that time. We lost our home, and my father lost his job and his life insurance. When he died we were left financially unstable and were forced into bankruptcy.
The impact of suddenly living in a lower, single income household affected everything. I stopped asking my mum if I could go on school trips or holidays as I knew she couldn’t afford it. My brother and I received free school meals and bills for essentials like utilities suddenly became a real struggle.
I had done well at school but knew that higher education wasn’t an option for me. I couldn’t see how we could afford for me to go to University with all the costs involved. I knew I had to get a job and bring money into the family as soon as possible.
If you live in a lower income household, your life choices and pathways become limited, through no fault of your own.
Perhaps because of my background, addressing any type of inequality has always been a passion of mine, so when I was offered the Lead Member role for Equalities and Domestic Abuse at Wigan Council, I knew it would be a perfect fit for me.
One of the first meetings I had in my new role was discussing my passion for tackling the way families are disproportionately affected in so many ways if they come from lower income families.
I was informed that a decision had been made by the Government not to include socio-economic disadvantage as part of the Equality Act but that we could include it in our own Equality Commitment, which is already a statutory requirement, in the same way that we had adopted carers and veterans into our Commitment.
I made the decision that we must make this a priority and last year, Wigan Council added socio-economic disadvantage to the protected characteristics listed in our Equality Commitment and our Equality Impact Assessments.
The fact that socio-economic disadvantage is now part of our Equality Commitment means that every time a new policy is developed, we are required to consider the impact it will have on those from lower income households. If we think it may have a detrimental effect, we discuss what we can build into the policy to make sure that does not happen.
Considering poverty as part of our Equality Commitment has also helped to raise the profile of the issue. Wigan Council is taking action to improve the life choices for those from lower income families in many different ways including making sure that high quality health services are accessible in lower income areas, providing quality, affordable homes and building more of the right homes, harnessing the power digital has to improve people’s opportunities and creating local economic growth through our Community Wealth Building Strategy.
The fact that Wigan Council chose to create the Lead Member for Equalities role, means that equality, and as part of that, our socio-economic duty, is now always under the spotlight and there is a constant political challenge there to push the agenda.
It is so important for councils to adopt this duty. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that, yet again, it is the lower income families that are disproportionately affected and we must do everything we can to mitigate it.
We must continue to campaign for socio-economic disadvantage to be included in national legislation. But it’s also important to remember that there are small changes we can make locally, that can have a huge and positive impact on lower income families.
Everyone deserves the same life chances – no matter where you are born or how much money you have and if a Local Authority can help on that journey why would we choose not to?
This article originally appeared in the Greater Manchester Poverty Action (GMPA) newsletter on 20th January 2021. To access the GMPA newsletter go to: https://www.gmpovertyaction.org/news/