The new Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, said in her now rather well-known speech, ‘Fighting for Fairness’ in December that she wants to move away from the, ”narrow focus“ on protected characteristics, and a wider look at geographical and socio-economic factors in the pursuit of a, ”fairer” society.[1] Her claims that policies should be based on evidence rather than ‘fashion’, as well as pitting left-behind White working class boys against other groups have unsurprisingly caused a wave of consternation across the women’s and equalities sector, which has campaigned for many years to get discrimination and structural inequalities on the agenda and legislated for.  

Not only does she seem to be engaging in dog-whistle tactics, she is exposing her ignorance of the equalities agenda more broadly. Discrimination is real. Racism and sexism is real. Structural barriers are limiting social mobility and peoples’ lives are adversely affected. Equalities organisations work tirelessly to ensure this reality is acknowledged and things change. To paint this as ‘fashion’ ignores the ‘intersectional’ analysis of all of our organisations’ work, which points to the various factors that hinder equality, including socio-economic factors as the overriding one. All of us understand that women’s equality is bound up with a range of factors, which is why we have been calling on public policy to stop the government’s ’hostile environment’ policies, reverse the no recourse to public funds (NRPF) rule, allow asylum seekers to work, increase Universal Credit payments, make sure companies publish their equal pay data, have a ’joined up’ approach to VAWG, fund regional and grassroots community groups that seek to empower those they support and so on. We understand how there are no ‘single-issues’, and ‘protected characteristics’ are never discrete categories. This is why we always call for disaggregated data so that black women for example don’t fall through the cracks of ‘sex’ and ‘race’.

This is pretty basic stuff, which is why it is pretty horrifying that the person now in charge of the Equalities Agenda doesn’t seem to get it. We agree wholeheartedly with Truss‘s focus on ’evidence-based’ decision-making – but the implicit suggestion that we are all just ideological ’campaigners’ with no data to back up our demands and analysis is so far from the truth, it would be funny if it weren’t so offensive. The women’s sector has produced mountains of such data. The question is: does the government want to listen and act upon it?

So far, the answer seems to be ‘not really’. If the government were so concerned about class as the main driver of inequality, then why are Universal Credit payments so pitiful? Why is statutory sick pay so meagre? Why did deindustrialised areas in the North get no major public investment to retrain and employ people? Why are trade union and employment laws so skewed towards businesses’ right to make profits rather than workers’ rights to struggle for better terms and conditions? Why isn’t free childcare for all women the backbone of an economic strategy? Why is the world of business so deregulated as to allow for an ever-widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots?

The cynicism of the government in using the real fight for equality as a proxy for a culture war is all the more obvious for their dismal track-record at actually tackling inequality. We want to work with government to make society fairer. Post-pandemic and post-Brexit policies give us a window of opportunity to move in a different direction. The question we will have to ask ourselves is how best to position ourselves, and what our messaging should be in light of the rather gloomy direction of travel…

Writtn by: Kiran Dhami, Policy Officer Women's Resource Centre