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Poverty duty must not become ‘tick box’ exercise

Campaigners and academics have warned the Scottish Government’s proposed new legal duty on councils to consider how they decisions can reduce poverty and inequality must not become a ‘tick box’ exercise.

The Scottish Government announced earlier this month Scotland would become the first part of the UK to introduce a socio-economic duty on all public sector bodies.

The plans, which are currently out to public consultation, will mean bodies like councils and the NHS must consider what more they can do to reduce poverty and inequality, whenever they make major decisions.

The duty was first included in the UK government’s 2010 equality act, but was never implemented by ministers.

Speaking to New Start, Professor John McKendrick from the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Unit at Glasgow University said ‘tackling poverty and reducing inequality is everybody’s business’ but warned ‘the devil will be in the detail’ with the new duty and ‘it must not become a “tick box” exercise’.

‘If the socio-economic duty is to be transformative, then it requires changes to current practice and a shared sense of purpose that places greater priority in tackling poverty and inequality locally,’ said McKendrick.

While the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisation’s policy manager, Ruchir Shah, said for the duty to be meaningful and ‘not simply a whitewash exercise in ticking the “equality” box’, public authorities need to make sure ‘they have clear mechanisms in place to get views from people directly affected, and analysis from the community and voluntary organisations that work with them’.

‘To demonstrate that the socio-economic duty is trustworthy, any proofing of public authority plans needs to go beyond consultation to a more open approach, where the views that public authorities receive from citizens and organisations and their response to these are openly published.’

The associate director for Scotland at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Jim McCormick, said the new duty is a ‘clear means of locating responsibility for reducing poverty with key public agencies’.

‘For this to be effective in the long run, we need to build consensus about the best solutions at local, regional and Scottish levels, while being aware that UK government powers and the role of others – such as private sector employers – will also have a major influence outside the remit of the new duty,’ added McCormick.

‘This will involve a greater focus on what works to reduce costs, maximise incomes and improve prospects through education, skills and progression. In this way, priority-setting and resource allocation can be linked to the duty’s purpose of reducing poverty and inequality, thus reducing the risk of “minimum compliance” with the new law.’

A spokeswoman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), which represents almost all the councils in Scotland said it has originally called for the duty to be enacted and ‘will work with Scottish government to ensure the guidance that will accompany the duty is as effective as possible’.

The public consultation on the socio-economic duty runs until 12 September and the results are expected to be published later in the autumn.

  • Link to the consultation here.

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