From 31 March 2021, a range of public sector bodies in Wales will be subject to the new Socio-economic Duty in section 1 of the Equality Act 2010. The duty will be implemented by the Equality Act 2010 (Authorities subject to a duty regarding Socio-economic Inequalities) (Wales) Regulations 2021.
What is the duty?
The duty aims to support the most vulnerable members of society, by requiring strategic decision makers to have regard to how their decisions might help reduce the inequalities associated with socio-economic disadvantage.
When deciding how to fulfil the Socio-economic Duty, an authority must take into account the Welsh Government’s statutory guidance A More Equal Wales. In this guidance, socio-economic disadvantage is defined as “living in less favourable social and economic circumstances than others in the same society” and there is some useful analysis of how there can be a disproportionate socio-economic disadvantage both amongst those who share an identity due to their personal characteristics or experiences (a ‘community of interest’) and amongst those who share a geographic location (a ‘community of place’).
Which bodies owe the duty?
Only the following Welsh public bodies will be subject to the duty:
- The Welsh Ministers;
- County Councils and County Borough Councils;
- Local Health Boards;
- NHS Trusts;
- Special Health Authorities (operating on a Wales-only basis);
- Fire and Rescue Authorities;
- National Park Authorities; and
- The Welsh Revenue Authority.
However, the Welsh Government is encouraging all public bodies in Wales to act in the spirit of the duty and to take into account the statutory guidance in their decision-making.
Legal implications and practical steps
The duty applies to all decisions of a strategic nature made on or after 31 March 2021. Any failure to fulfil the duty can be challenged by way of judicial review, and so public authorities are potentially vulnerable to legal challenges by individuals or groups who consider that they have been adversely affected by a failure to perform the duty.
Whilst there is no formal reporting requirement, it will be important for those authorities which are subject to the duty to create a clear audit trail to evidence their compliance. The Welsh Government’s guidance encourages authorities to integrate their consideration of the Socio-economic Duty into their existing processes. This seems sensible given that the approach to ensuring fulfilment of the duty is likely to be broadly similar to the approach needed when considering the well-being objectives under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Public Sector Equality Duty in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010. Therefore, public authorities are likely to find their established processes for carrying out impact assessments and for engaging with stakeholders to be useful and relevant in connection with the Socio-economic Duty.
The A More Equal Wales guidance includes a helpful list of resources which authorities can access for data to support their analysis and reasoning around socio-economic disadvantage.
If they have not done so already, public authorities are advised to update any procedural guides and reporting templates to ensure that they contain appropriate references to the new duty, to prompt due consideration of all relevant factors and to help ensure compliance by those taking strategic decisions.
If you require further advice relating to the Socio-economic Duty and its implications, please get in touch with Bethan Lloyd.
RELATED: EXPERTISE - CENTRAL, DEVOLVED AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT