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Stretching the role of commissioners

It seems central government no longer regards equality as a priority – and that makes the role of local commissioners more crucial than ever, says Matthew Jackson

The coalition government’s policies around public service reform and localism have left commissioners in the public sector in a difficult position when it comes to equalities issues and considerations. The government’s ideologies, austerity measures and reform policies have seen the gradual stripping away of the importance of equalities to be replaced by the rather clumsy and meaningless notion of fairness.

This backing away from equality by central government has implications for the value of the Equality Act 2010. As highlighted in new research by CLES and the North West Infrastructure Partnership (NWIP), it also has ramifications for specialist services, equalities infrastructure and governance, the equalities focused voluntary and community sector, and importantly, equality of opportunity at the local level.

This is all particularly noteworthy for local government. A reduction in central consideration and interest in equality and associated cuts in expenditure places local government in a position whereby the bare minimum is probably all that is achievable when it comes to equalities. Time, resourcing, capacity, and local political cultures will be all factors as to whether equalities can form an active and full part of service reform and delivery.

This is not a position that local authorities should be in or want to be in. Indeed, central government’s stance on equality is opening up local government to challenge and indeed judicial review when it comes to equalities issues.

In our report on responsible reform, to be published on Thursday, we call for equality to be a key principle of the Open Public Services agenda and for this principle to be not just the domain of individual localities but of a more transparent central state.

Commissioners in the public sector have a key role to play in ensuring that service decisions and delivery consider and benefit all people and communities. We therefore call for commissioners to go beyond the bare minimum that appears to be advocated by government and really stretch the role of equalities in commissioning.

Our ‘stretching conditions’ are linked to the five themes of the Open Public Services white paper and include:

• Choice – identify gaps in provision with representatives from all equality groups

• Decentralisation – in monitoring the contract, consider whether decentralisation is leading to the exclusion of equality groups

• Diversity – examine ways of ensuring the influence of equality groups and communities in the design and delivery of services

• Fairness – develop performance indicators for managing fairness involving equality groups

• Accountability – build into contracts requirements for contractors to engage with equality groups in the management and delivery of contracts.

The last thing we want the localism agenda to do is to widen divides and create greater inequality. The role of the commissioner and the wider local state is therefore vital.

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