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Linking up the ‘five pillars’ can deliver equality

pillarsThe ‘five pillars’ that support the government’s reform programme must have equality at their foundations. Any notion of ‘fairness’ will come crashing down otherwise, warns Stuart Speeden

‘Freedom, fairness and responsibility’ were the declared principles upon which the coalition government set out its reform programme in May 2010. Less than two years on from this commitment it is unclear how the concept of fairness is measured.

Research conducted on the impact of the reform agenda shows that there are serious risks and consequences for protected and disadvantaged groups that arise from changes to welfare, health and social care. Some of these consequences for women, elderly and disabled people have already received some publicity but this study in north-west England – due to be launched tomorrow – shows there are serious consequences for all groups protected under the Equality Act 2010.

The government has never articulated its views on the relationship between equalities and its vision of a fair society, instead, fairness has come to stand for something ‘other’ than equality.

The absence of joined-up thinking and joined-up government seems to be a hallmark of the reform programme, particularly with regard to equalities. The research shows that the consequences and risks associated with welfare and social care reform are exacerbated by the broader agenda for reform associated with localism, local and regional development and the Big Society.

Together, the structural and legislative changes that have been introduced, or are in progress, are likely to have a profoundly negative effect on equality of opportunity, equality of access and equality of service provision for people whose interests are protected under law.  The research illustrates the damage that is being done to those parts of the voluntary sector that support equalities through a wide range of specialist services.

We have made proposals in Responsible Reform: Open Public Service for All that provide a framework through which government can tackle some of the adverse consequences of its reform agenda and demonstrate its commitment to equality and the voluntary sector.

The government has set out five pillars for its reform programme based on: choice; decentralisation; diversity; fairness; and accountability. The challenge for central government is to ensure that these elements can work together to produce fairness – a fairness grounded in the commitment to support equalities and social justice.

A first step towards this approach is to recognise the inter-connectedness of the different agendas for reform and ensure that mechanisms are available at national and local level that examine and take seriously the impact of each of the reform agendas and how they affect one another.

The point of intervention, where these issues meet with the real world of service delivery is the pre-tender process and we propose guidance from central government on pre-tender planning that will, through an assessment process seek to balance the five pillars and guard against some of the adverse consequences that flow from the reform programme.

To achieve this, a detailed methodology will be necessary from central government on pre-tender planning that engages local bodies in an initial review and assessment; taking account of the overall context of reform; evaluating the implications of choice, decentralisation, diversity and fairness; mitigating equalities impact and adverse implications for the voluntary sector. This guidance would need to provide a common approach across government departments and would form an essential united factor in decentralised management and governance.

The research carried out in the north west demonstrates the importance of engagement with the voluntary sector in understanding the impact of policies and services on protected groups. A system for pre-tender planning would be insufficient without effective engagement between the voluntary sector and service commissioning; informing and challenging the processes of governance and reform.

It requires involvement in the pre-tender process and in the structures for accountability, both within the tendering process and in the delivery of contracts. A rich and diverse voluntary sector representing all the protected equality groups is a necessary component in delivering fairness and social justice and it will require a voluntary sector that is thriving and appropriately funded to undertake this role.

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