Photo by Chris McAndrew
Artillery Row

Beheading the hydra

Kemi Badenoch takes on the Equalities Industry

Will 2022 be the year when we begin to curtail the excesses, and reverse the growth, of the seemingly unstoppable “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” industry? The scale of corporate and government capture by this juggernaut is vast; it hoovers up scarce resources which would be better deployed elsewhere, and results in endless form-filling, box-ticking and “impact-assessments”. At the same time, it stifles free speech and open debate as everyone feels compelled to go along with its conformist requirements.

If we do manage to turn the tide, a key participant will be Kemi Badenoch, the Minister for Levelling Up Communities and Equalities. Just before Christmas, she wrote an important letter to all Government Ministers which has received insufficient attention. In her letter, she challenges the public sector approach to EDI, pointing out that accreted practices exceed legal requirements. Her words, from her position, will create the space for debate about the direction we’re travelling in, in an area smothered by orthodoxy.

The key driver of EDI in the public sector is the “Public Sector Equality Duty”. In developing new policy, planning legislation, or carrying out administrative functions, public servants have a legal obligation to pay due regard to “PSED”. The requirements are set out in the Equality Act 2010. According to a summary provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commision, in carrying out their duties, public servants must have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation and other conduct prohibited by the Act; advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not; foster good relations between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not”.

Imagine having to write documents that no-one reads

Implemented with no doubt good intentions back in 2010, the tentacles of “PSED” have spread far. A boast that we’re becoming unfortunately familiar with, is that an institution has gone “beyond the legislation” — as if that held no offsetting costs, and should only be applauded. As an example, when I was a local councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham, people complained to me that they were asked to reveal their sexual orientation when applying for a loft extension. When council tenants needed their boilers serviced, they were asked to disclose their religion. Council officers claimed this was a requirement — Equalities, of course.

Local councillors would also come across EDI when assessing policies and proposals. It was a regular feature of Committee meetings for a colleague to intone wisely when, say, perusing a plan to widen a street, narrow a street, or do nothing to a street, “Oh, but where is your Equality Impact Assessment?” Cue officials producing a lengthy document triumphantly. Having pretended to be penetrating and purposeful, we all went home, boxes ticked. Imagine having to write documents that no-one reads.

Now, in her letter to all Government Ministers, Badenoch makes a number of observations that will help to shake up public sector EDI. It’s well worth exploring its details. First of all, she points out that there is actually no legal requirement to publish “Equality Impact Assessments” alongside every proposal. Where a policy has limited “equality” implications, “a short note or simply a statement that the decision has been considered but has no equality impact, may be an adequate assessment”. That will make the sector shrivel.

Bucking the trend for a certain negativism within the EDI industry (perhaps because when things are bad, you need more EDI), Badenoch points out that “departments should consider all the equality impacts of policies — this means considering the positive equality outcomes from policies, not just any potential negatives”. She continues: “For example, policies which promote economic growth, jobs and prosperity will benefit everyone — including those with different protected characteristics.” What a breath of fresh air to look at the upside, and not divide us.

She continues: “Government policies should seek to unite communities across class, colour and creed, rather than atomising society based on protected characteristics, while recognising and addressing the different needs of certain groups.” This is bold stuff. With Badenoch’s letter in hand, a public servant here, a humble councillor there, will be able to challenge the box-ticking and boredom: do we really need loft conversion data by sexuality?

Badenoch gets more sensible, more audacious by the sentence. “However, it is also important to remember that difference in treatment or outcome is not necessarily discrimination.” This is quite a challenge to an industry which veers towards assuming that the very existence of difference is an indicator of discrimination.

We don’t need to know how many trans-identifying individuals work at the Home Office

Badenoch is on a roll: “In considering mitigation of any negative impact of the policy on a protected group, it is important to consider whether the particular protected characteristic is the cause of that statistical difference.” Now Badenoch is saying out loud what many a public servant up and down the land has become too fearful to say. Instead, people have generated forms, composed questionnaires, analysed outcomes, diagnosed differences, implicitly or explicitly accused someone somewhere of discrimination — if you can’t find the culprit, call it “structural” — got paid, gone home, fed the cat. Same the next day.

Badenoch tells public servants they can challenge the dogma: “The duty encompasses a duty of inquiry.”

We really don’t need to understand boiler repairs by religion: “In some instances where protected characteristics will not be relevant to a Government policy, there will understandably be an absence of data on any relationship between the policy and those with particular protected characteristics.” Priti Patel is right — we don’t need to know how many trans-identifying individuals work at the Home Office; we just need to not discriminate.

Finally, “complying with the duty should not lead to disproportionate burdens on the public sector or their private sector or voluntary sector contractors. The cost of disproportionate burdens ultimately falls on the taxpayer.” There go a few EDI jobs. Did someone say the NHS needs nurses? The haulage industry hauliers?

Badenoch ends with, “I hope this is helpful.”

For those who benefit from generating box-ticking and paperwork, no. For those who seek to categorise us, divide us and intersectionalise us, no. For those who benefit from blaming discrimination wherever a statistical difference between human beings is found, no.

From everyone else: “Brilliant work!”

In a short letter to colleagues, Badenoch calmly says things that have become virtually unsayable in the public sphere. In doing so she creates the space for an urgently needed debate about our sprawling suffocating Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion Industry. Is it now helping to unite us or divide us? How does it make us better off? What should we do differently? Do we really want to eliminate difference, or celebrate it, or somewhere in between? What are we actually trying to achieve?

In 2022, with a powerful lead from Kemi Badenoch, let the debate begin afresh.

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