Last week, the Social Mobility Commission published its 'state of the nation' policy paper which set out some key recommendations for improving social mobility and promoting a more equal society. These recommendations provide much food for thought for employers looking to review their social mobility strategy. They show the importance of ensuring that outreach is targeted to those areas where opportunities are most limited. They also show that the problem does not stop when someone enrols at university or secures a certain role and that social mobility issues can and do play out as people move forward in their careers.
As I said in my blog last week, all of these things are vital to reversing the trends that the pandemic has worsened. If employers do not take direct action now, we will not be able to build back better.
However, employers cannot improve social mobility on their own. In my view, the Government also has a responsibility for ensuring that those from a lower socio-economic background are sufficiently protected in law from discrimination and unfair treatment. The best way to achieve this is through strengthening the Equality Act.
In my article published in the Times today, I have set out the case for this reform.
It is true that the Equality Act has had a significant impact since its introduction 10 years ago. By simplifying and strengthening the law on equality, it has empowered many people to challenge unacceptable behaviour in a way they could not have done before. However, over the last decade, our understanding of the inequalities in society has expanded. Whilst there is a link between socio-economic background and many of the existing protected characteristics, social mobility remains an issue in its own right and in some ways the Act does not go far enough.
A good example of this relates to regional accents. Research has consistently shown that a bias against certain regional accents may result in working-class candidates finding it more difficult to access and succeed in certain careers than their middle and upper-class counterparts. However, guidance from The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) confirms that an individual being treated unfairly solely because they have a regional accent is currently unlikely to succeed in a claim for discrimination under the Equality Act.
To enable us to improve social mobility in a meaningful way, the Equality Act must be strengthened to incorporate a person’s socio-economic background as a protected characteristic.
This type of reform is not going to happen overnight. It will require careful thought through meaningful consultation. But it will be a key first step to enabling those from a lower socio-economic background to challenge a system that is currently against them.
Immediate steps are needed to improve social mobility in the UK. While factors such as increasing funding for education and tackling digital poverty are important, change must start with legislative reform.