Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Breaking the Camel’s Back

I live in North West England – a region with a population of just over 6.8 million people.

About 20% of those people have a disability of some kind; 650,000 of them have a Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) background; well over 600,000 are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Add in the fact that around a fifth profess a religion which is not based on Christianity and you'll see that, overall, diversity is the norm rather than the exception these days.

The old picture of a population that was white, straight, Christian and able-bodied needs to be consigned to the dustbin.

Now consider the other side of the coin.

Since 2002 the Race Equality Duty has obliged public authorities to work proactively and consult with communities to eliminate racial disadvantage in their services and work places.

Since 2006 the Disability Equality Duty has required those same bodies to involve disabled people in reviewing existing services and strategies, and in the planning of new ones.

Then, since April 2007, they've had to consult with men and women stakeholders (including trans people) to ensure that working arrangements, policies, and services do not conceal hidden disadvantages for anyone on the basis of their gender.

None of us are complete experts on the lives and experiences of others.

I know in theory some of the issues which affect black Asian people, for instance, but I don't have the first hand knowledge of someone who lives that existence.

It's going to get more complex when the new Equality Bill comes into force and people need to start applying the same disciplines to questions of sexual orientation, age or religious belief.

This is why effective consultation and involvement with expert stakeholders lies at the very heart of Equality Impact Assessment and the production of Equality Schemes (which are both statutory requirements under the laws I've mentioned).

So far, so good. That shouldn't be difficult, should it? But look at the numbers.

In England's North West there are 46 local authorities; five police forces; 63 NHS Trusts; umpteen fire services; offender management services; a regional development agency; the Strategic Health Authority ... and those are just the 'obvious' public bodies.

The picture is the same in the other nine English regions; I've just picked the North West because I know the numbers well.

So what happens when every one of those seeks to carry out its' statutory duty and tries to consult?

Well, in theory, there's a so-called "third sector" to call upon. That's the term for the myriad charities and voluntary services that make up the part of our working economy that doesn't consist of private and public sector companies and organisations.

It's deceptively large. In the North West there are reckoned to be over 30,000 voluntary and community organisations (VCO's).

So no problem there then, huh?

Yet notice I said "deceptive". The problem is that most of those VCO's are truly tiny.

They may involve only three or four willing volunteers. They probably don't have an office. They work from home in their spare time. They're not paid. They exist to work on whichever issue needed to be addressed. They struggle with, at best, minimal funding – which all goes towards the thing they're focussed upon. They may not have the capacity (or indeed training) to participate in consultations looking at complex strategic questions – even if they had the time or energy.

Also, just because you have detailed personal experience of using a wheelchair (say) doesn't mean you're an expert who can answer questions about the lives of people with sight or hearing impairments, learning difficulties, or indeed other kinds of mobility challenges.

Strip away all those tiny organisations, who sometimes barely exist, and what you have left is a small number of more substantial charities or social enterprises in each sector.

Some sectors are relatively well served. There are lots of BME organisations, for instance, and a handful of substantial organisations representing disabled people (backed by several smaller, local, groups).

Some numbers can mislead. You'll find local women's groups, focussed on delivering crèche or domestic violence and rape crisis services – yet most are teetering on the edge of survival.

Then there are other areas where provision is centred on maybe one or two groups.

In the North West, for instance, there is only one substantial charity focussed on issues for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people.

And, nationally, the number of organisations competent to consult on issues affecting the tiny trans population can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

So what happens when well over 100 public organisations try to descend on these organisations because they're desperate to fulfil their statutory duties to consult and involve?

Well, the reality is that in many cases the charities and voluntary/community groups concerned simply won't have the capacity to cope.

If they have funding then that will have been carefully ring fenced to work on the specific projects the group has been funded to do.

The money doesn't pay for officers of the VCO to spend time reading and replying to consultation documents – let alone attending consultation meetings or events.

Historically, the public sector has been very presumptious too. In my experience as an activist I simply lost count of the number of times that Government Departments and lesser public bodies simply assumed I would read and respond consultations – almost always at the last minute.

The blackmail inherent in this way of operating is clear as day. You can decline to submit views to a consultation; yet then you know that the implementation will be flawed and you'll end up living with the results. It represents the worse kind of exploitation.

Indeed, I've publicly labelled this kind of practice as 'theft', to the horror of some public servants. Yet what other word is there for the practice of setting out to obtain someone's knowledge and expertise with no intention to pay for it?

So what's to be done?

Well, public bodies need to get much better at working intelligently together – for instance, through more Local Area Agreements.

For instance, a local authority can get together with their Primary Care Trust, Police and probation officers, and work collectively on the issues that affect their locality.

They can pool resources to obtain the data they need – or commission and conduct research to inform their thinking.

Best of all, they can collectively consult with organisations with the experience to tell them what needs to be done to address the disadvantages of particular groups of people on their patch.

As a matter of principle they should expect to engage with these VCOs on a professional basis as partners. Volunteers aren't inferior because they don't get paid – any more than amateur sports men and women should be thought of as inferior to the paid kind.

Indeed people who work with the issues that matter every day are arguably more expert than the people you might seek to hire from expensive consultancies.

Public authorities also need to consider how to use their financial power to help build the capacity and expertise of the groups they need to consult with.

Remember this isn't optional or a form of 'charity'. Having a healthy sustainable third sector community is a strategic necessity in order to carry out the necessary consultation on a long term basis – or indeed to commission the services to implement the resulting actions.

What's certain is that the alternative is not an option. For that will simply result in breaking the camel's back.


Anonymous said...

You submit a formal complaint that by relying on VCOs in a small field like equality for those who have undergone gender reassignment they are effectively discriminating. Organisations have an obligation not to discriminate and struturing consulations in such a way that it falls in too few people in terms trans issues is discrimination, it is also falure to make a reasonable adjustment is terms of the DDA.

Organisations need to consult with the trans community online so that the load can be spread, so that the views of those who are in stealth or in the closet are taken into account (the members of VCOs are usually out and therefore not actually representative of a great many trans people), while ensuring that consulation is properly secure in terms of protecting personal data (see other comment).

Any consulation exercise which doesn't recognise that a very significant part of the TS world is not out and that the TS community is small - and structure itself accordingly - is, in and of itself, discriminatory.

Darren Demers said...

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