Our conclusions are set out below in bold text and our recommendations in bold italic text.
54.Since 2019, the Government has referred to an Equality Hub within the Cabinet Office but to date the Hub has not published any corporate documents. Its structure remains unclear, and it lacks transparency and accountability. This is unacceptable. The Cabinet Office must publish annual information on staffing and funding of the Equality Hub, its constituent units (the Government Equalities Office, the Disability Unit, the Race Disparity Unit and the Social Mobility Commission), broken down by administration, projects and programmes. This could be either in its annual Outcome Delivery Plans or in a separate Equality Hub document, but the information must be proactively published in the interests of transparency and accountability.
55.We welcome the Equality Hub’s understanding of our central role in parliamentary scrutiny of its administration, policy and expenditure, and that of its constituent units, including the Government Equalities Office, the Disability Unit, the Race Disparity Unit and its latest addition, the Social Mobility Commission. We readily accept responsibility for this expanded scrutiny role.
56.We recommend the Government bring forward a revised Standing Order, to make the Women and Equalities Committee a cross-cutting Select Committee of the House of Commons, appointed to examine cross-government policy on pan-equalities issues, and socio-economic inequality, geographic disparities and social mobility.
57.It is deeply disappointing and unacceptable that officials and ministers were unwilling to be openly scrutinised in this inquiry, which is at the core of our remit. We hope this inquiry and Report can be a watershed in the Government’s approach to open scrutiny of its equality policies. We ask that the Government set out in response to this Report a renewed commitment to engage properly with our work, including through timely submission of written evidence systematically addressing our terms of reference, a renewed acceptance by ministers of their public duty to give oral evidence as invited with reasonable notice, and by responding fully and constructively to our Reports within the conventional two months of publication.
58.The Government Equalities Office’s move into the coordinating centre of government, in the Cabinet Office, and the potential expansion of its coordinating role with the inception of the Equality Hub, is positive but the benefits are yet to be fully realised. We strongly welcome the intended permanence of the move, which will avoid much of the unnecessary and costly disruption of departmental and ministerial churn experienced during its history as an itinerant unit within government. However, elements of the Government’s equalities machinery remain too fragmented and lack coherence. The Government is pursuing elements of the previous administration’s plans on equalities while dropping others, with no coherent rationale. Above all, the lack of a published cross-departmental pan-equalities strategy and Action Plan is a key weakness.
59.We welcome the Government’s intention to focus more on socio-economic and geographic inequality and look forward to the publication of its Levelling Up White Paper. While enactment of the socio-economic duty, section 1 of the Equality Act, is unlikely to be a panacea, we recommend the Government commission a pilot to establish the costs and benefits of different approaches to voluntary adoption of the duty in England.
60.Given some of the Minister for Women and Equalities’ comments in her “new fight for fairness” speech about not focusing on groups, we are concerned about a risk of going backwards on important, long-established equality issues for groups of people protected by the Equality Act. The Equality Data Programme should be seized as an opportunity for the Government to set out, together with its proposed Levelling Up policies, a cross-departmental pan-equalities strategy based on data on the full range of factors that drive disadvantage, including protected characteristics under the Equality Act and the intersections between them and other factors. We recommend the Equality Hub publish a cross-departmental pan-equalities strategy by the end of the first quarter of 2022, covering the period to at least the end of this Parliament. To raise its profile and inform the longer-term development of its strategy, we recommend the Equality Hub publish a schedule of public and stakeholder events covering a range of equalities issues. We further recommend it publish annual Action Plans, setting out specific and measurable steps it will take in each financial year to meet its strategic equality objectives.
61.In 2018, our predecessor Committee found that allocation of the Minister for Women and Equalities role as an additional responsibility of a Cabinet Minister was sub-optimal. The role was susceptible to Cabinet reshuffles and its allocation seemed like an afterthought. Any benefits from policy synergies with a Secretary of State’s departmental policy priorities were incidental rather than being part of any planned strategy. These problems persist, as clearly demonstrated by allocation of the role in 2019 to the then Secretary of State for International Trade (The Rt Hon Liz Truss MP, now Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs), a particularly demanding and time-consuming brief in the context of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, and one which lacks clear crossover with the domestic equalities agenda. We note the Government’s allocation of the Levelling Up brief to The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State in the newly named Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, ahead of publication of its Levelling Up White Paper. It is not clear what place, if any, he will have in the Government’s equalities machinery. We recommend the Government create a new full-time Cabinet level role of Secretary of State for Equalities and Levelling Up, to drive implementation of the expected Levelling Up White Paper and a new cross-departmental pan-equalities strategy. These should be considered complementary, high priority agendas, which should be driven from the heart of government. Consideration should also be given to bringing the more junior roles of Minister for Women, Minister for Equalities and Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work into the Cabinet Office on a full-time basis.
62.We note both the current absence of a cross-departmental equalities strategy and strong coordinating machinery to drive it forward. We therefore recommend the Government establish a dedicated Cabinet Committee for Equalities and Levelling Up, to add further drive to both agendas across government.
63.Our Reports on Covid-19 have demonstrated that the pandemic has had unequal effects on some groups, including women, disabled people and some Black and minority ethnic groups, and exacerbated existing inequalities. The equalities machinery within government has not been sufficient to anticipate and act to mitigate unequal effects across the Government’s policy responses to the pandemic. Three steps are required to ensure that lessons are learned from this:
64.International conventions, including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) impose long-established legal obligations on achieving equality domestically. The new equalities strategy and annual Action Plans should set out actions to be taken to meet the UK’s international equality commitments. Further, the Government should, as recommended by the UN and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, establish a National Mechanism for Implementation, Reporting and Follow-up, to ensure the most effective possible engagement with international equality and human rights conventions and treaties. Consideration should also be given to restructuring current processes, which are fragmented across several departments, and bringing oversight into a single international compliance team in the Equality Hub.
65.Equality for different groups can raise difficult, balanced rights issues, for example race or religion and belief can sometimes conflict with equal rights on the grounds of sex or sexual orientation. There are lessons to be learned from recent delicately balanced rights questions, perhaps most notably Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reform, the public debate around which has become protracted and acrimonious. The equalities machinery must adapt to better engage with civil society organisations and experts from all perspectives and seek common ground on the most difficult balanced rights questions. We recommend the Government invite the Equality and Human Rights Commission to engage with a range of stakeholders to seek common ground on the most difficult balanced rights issues. The new equalities strategy should set out a programme of such stakeholder engagement on the most pressing issues, for example the interplay between options for GRA reform and women’s rights to single-sex spaces, services and sports. It should also set out clear principles to underpin the choice of ministerial advisory panels and on which issues they should be appointed to advise.
66.The Equality Hub should conduct a review of the Government’s communications on, and management of, sensitive and balanced rights issues, drawing in particular on lessons learned from the Gender Recognition Act reform process since 2018 and the Government’s approach to communicating the findings of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.