Tackling inequalities the right way? Solving the right problems
Leeds GATE and many other organisations recently dashed to submit responses to a ministerial working group looking at Gypsy and Traveller inequality. You can see our final submission here. The study was undertaken by the Women and Equalities Commission, established to ‘hold to account’ the Government Equalities Office. This particular working group was touted in Europe by our Government as key to the Roma Integration Strategy. As our submissions now start to be published it is timely to question its effectiveness; in particular, are we solving the right problems?
So the study, recognised the scale of the challenge well, with a pretty uncontroversial opening describing its scope: “Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people are the most disadvantaged ethnic groups in the UK. On average, they have a shorter life expectancy than the rest of the population, poor educational outcomes and often face hostility and discrimination from others in society.” So far so good with respect to diagnosing the levels of inequality. The question arises though as to whether the setting of 28 commitments, as occurred in 2012, was the correct response.
Firstly, it is a common truism that the more goals you set, the less likely all are realised. Gypsy and Traveller inequality runs deeply and broadly across so many socio-economic factors and cannot of course be addressed by driving at one target. To set over twenty though makes prioritisation near impossible. That difficultly translates to present day where the scope of the enquiry was to assess progress with all these commitments. We are asked to present evidence, and the committee to consider, on a huge list of topics. The study’s focus now will naturally be diluted.
We must also ask whether the commitments themselves address the right issues. Take but one example, of accommodation. We see two frankly bizarre commitments, not so much becuase they are controversial but because they would not be cited as priorities by anyone with knowledge on the subject. Consequentially, their achievement would alone make little practical impact on inequality. The first of these for example, to create a case study document to ‘showcase small private sites’ is itself not a damaging objective but far from vital in the wider context.
Indeed, we can question whether such a commitment achieves even its narrow aim; presumably of encouraging more site applications and addressing under provision. The problem is that this positive but fairly limited action is completely dwarfed by other actions. Most relevantly, recent changes to the definition of Gypsy and Traveller in planning terms and other significant changes by DCLG have done overwhelmingly more to deter, if not directly prevent, site provision. Asking whether a best practice guide has or has not been written seems to miss the point.
It is a similar case for other issues, whether of health, criminal justice or education. Not only are there too many commitments to track, we again must take a step back and ask whether achieving these goals anyway is really solving the inequality at hand. The dilemma in the process of submission has been whether to change the debate or stay within the terms of reference. Going outside risks being ignored or dismissed whilst within risks reinforcing an erroneous assumption; that these commitments are necessary or sufficient to improving current inequalities.
Ultimately we must do both. We have to take every opportunity to comment and contribute to debates seeking to address Gypsy and Traveller inequality, particularly those with influence. Indeed it remained worthwhile in this case to confirm that many of these commitments, even if worthwhile, are clearly not being met. Equally though, we must continue to question whether any such studies, reports or debates are trying to solve the right problems. If not we have to say so, to push for changes our members actually want to see and value as making a meaningful change to their lives.