Implementing the Socio-economic Duty: learning from experience

On 31st March 2021, the Welsh Government commenced section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, known as the socio-economic duty. It requires that public bodies, when making strategic decisions,  have “due regard to the need to reduce the inequalities of outcome resulting from socio-economic disadvantage”. This signals the most recent attempt from the Welsh Government to embed equality principles with its own activities, and those of the wider public sector.

As my report The Welsh Government’s use of policy tools for mainstreaming equalities shows, the Welsh Government has extensive experience in embedding equality within its decision making, although has faced a number of challenges in doing so. These experiences and lessons learned offer suggestions for the implementation of the socio-economic duty, applicable to both the Welsh Government and the wider public sector.


Statutory duties are not enough on their own to enact change

The Welsh Government has a number of statutory requirements to promote equality within its decision making. Although, however transformative their potential may be, these requirements are not enough to deliver substantive change on their own. Implementation gaps, and a disconnect between statutory requirements to consider equality, and policy outputs and outcomes, are common. Even in cases where legislative duties are established, the extent to which equality is embedded within decision-making is often limited.


This requires that public bodies be ambitious in implementing the duty

Public bodies should aim high when implementing the Duty. Even when statutory duties are clearly communicated and effectively implemented, they may not be ambitious enough to meet their desired goals. This may be the case with the implementation of the Duty in Wales, particularly given the requirement to give ‘due regard’, and the apparent lack of specific outcomes for public bodies to achieve.  It is entirely possible to give ‘due regard’ to an issue, and for this to have little to no impact on policy outputs or socio-economic outcomes.


Collective ownership

A key barrier to implementation is the lack of collective ownership when embedding equality within government. Despite the work of dedicated individual officials, equality-related issues struggle to gain traction throughout government, with equality often seen as somebody else’s business.

As the Duty only applies to ‘strategic decisions’, high-level buy in and support will be essential. However, the chances of effective implementation will be greater if officials throughout a public body feel a level of collective responsibility for its implementation.


Awareness and understanding

In building this collective ownership around the Duty, public bodies should work to increase awareness and understanding throughout their organisations. As the Welsh Government’s experience of mainstreaming equality shows, a key barrier to implementation is lack of awareness of equalities issues among officials, along with a limited understanding of how to embed equality considerations within their activity.


Avoiding a culture of ‘tick-box’ compliance

The Welsh Government and relevant public bodies should be conscious of avoiding the emergence of a culture of ‘tick-box’ compliance when implementing the Duty. Evidenced in prior experience in mainstreaming equality within Wales, and highlighted during consultation prior to commencing the Duty, requirements to embed an issue within decision making are often seen as bureaucratic add-ons to decision making processes. Public bodies should therefore work to ensure that the Duty is meaningfully implemented, rather than working to fulfil statutory obligations and nothing more.


Being accountable

A key barrier to effectively embedding equality within decision making is accountability, and the degree to which the Socio-economic Duty can be enforced will have a significant impact on this. As evidence in numerous cases shows, if there are no consequences for not doing it, implementation is likely to be sub-optimal, and adherence to the Duty sporadic.

According to the Welsh Government’s statutory guidance, judicial review proceedings may be brought against a public body if it is felt that they are not complying with the Duty. Examining previous statutory duties on equality issues shows that this has consistently proved to be a barrier within Wales. Many organisations who may have cause to challenge Government or a public body lack the resources to do so, limiting the extent to which previous duties around embedding equalities can be, and have been, enforced.


Data and Evidence

The Welsh Government’s experience in mainstreaming equality highlights the necessity of equalities-relevant data when embedding equalities within decision making. A dearth of equalities related data, and a lack of clarity over how this data informs decision making has proved a key barrier to effectively embedding equality in Wales.

Without sufficient data, public bodies will struggle to effectively and accurately consider socio-economic inequality within their strategic decision making, and will have no means of accurately evaluating the impact of such decisions.

By considering the lessons learned from the Welsh Government’s experience in mainstreaming equalities, public bodies in Wales may prove more successful in implementing the socio-economic duty. However, it should be noted that effectively implementing such a duty is difficult, and a proactive approach among public bodies will be required if the duty is to become a meaningful tool for addressing socio-economic inequality within Wales.