Trevor Philips, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) he chairs, were in the news again on Friday. Mr Philips was threatening to take legal action against local authorities that fail to convince the Commission that they have adequate plans to redress their insufficient, or totally absent, provision of services for women who have been victims of violence or sexual assault. If the EHRC’s figures are reliable – and they do seem to have been quite thorough in their research – then the absence of provision in some parts of ‘the country’ are indeed truly deplorable: nearly one in four local authorities in Britain with no specialised support services at all.
What the EHRC and the media reporting on Mr Philips’ declaration of intent yesterday did not emphasise, however, is that the gaps in funding and provision exist almost entirely in England and, to a lesser extent, Wales. Why is this? Because, as it says almost at the end of the EHRC’s press release: “In Scotland, the Government has extended provision through a national Violence Against Women fund for over five years”.
Why should ‘the Government’ create a ‘national Violence Against Women fund’ in Scotland while no such provision exists in England or Wales? Rhetorical question, of course; because this is not in fact referring to the UK government, as you could be forgiven for thinking, but the Scottish government. So the EHRC’s criticisms are not in fact directed at local authorities throughout the UK, because Scotland is performing significantly better. Why? Because in Scotland, they have a devolved government that has made the provision of care for women victims of violence a national priority. And it doubtless helps that Scotland has superior funding to back this up through the higher per-capita public spending guaranteed by the Barnett Formula.
The fact that the EHRC itself believes that the ability to deliver an adequate level of provision in this area results from its being set as a national priority is evident from what the EHRC’s press release goes on to say about the Scottish fund: “But this fund is now at risk since some of the work previously ringfenced has been lost because of delegation of responsibility for part of the fund to local authorities, a system which, as this year’s report shows, isn’t working for victims of violence in the rest of Britain”.
Well, yes; so if the problem in the ‘rest of Britain’ is the delegation of responsibility to local authorities, doesn’t this logically imply that the EHRC’s criticism and actions should be directed against the national English government, which should be taking ownership of the issue and driving the improvements – as has the national Scottish government – and not against the local authorities Mr Philips is now menacing with his clunking fist? But there’s a problem with that, of course: there is no national English government. Consequently, there is no government department, or combination of departments, specifically tasked with looking after the welfare and rights of English women victims of violence; no English government, answerable to the English electorate, that has the needs and situation of English women sufficiently at heart that it takes responsibility for ensuring that their human rights are looked after and that the local authorities of England do their job in this area. And one of the reasons why English local authorities are failing to a greater extent than their Scottish counterparts is that they receive less funding for the job.
But you wouldn’t know that from the EHRC press release, from the media interviews with Trevor Philips on Friday or from the wider media coverage. The funding and political inequalities between Scotland and England were never once mentioned as a possible factor in the variations in provision. Instead, the EHRC press release talks of a “postcode lottery” of inconsistent services throughout Britain – a phrase which is increasingly used nowadays to gloss over the primary discrepancy in public-service provision in the UK, which is that between England and the other UK nations.
In fact, the press release revealingly uses the phrase “regional postcode lottery”. This refers to a map of differential provision throughout Great Britain (the ‘map of gaps’) that has been drawn up by the EHRC in partnership with the charity grouping End Violence Against Women (EVAW), in which Great Britain has been divided up into 11 ‘regions’ – two of the ‘regions’ being Scotland and Wales. So it’s not a regional postcode lottery, as such; but a lottery of superior provision in the nations of Scotland and Wales compared with (the regions of) England.
This map is interactive; and you can indeed search for the provision in your local area by individual postcode. However, you can also search the availability of different types of care for women victims of violence across the whole of Great Britain, with colour coding indicating the number of individual services that are available in the local authorities concerned. In the generic category, ‘violence against women services’, all of the red-coded areas (no provision) are in England: no red in either Scotland or Wales.
If you click through all the sub-categories, the only ones where Scotland and Wales are predominantly coloured red are where England is mostly red, too; e.g. ‘services for black minority ethnic women’ or ‘specialist domestic violence courts’.
Indeed, the section of the map of gaps site entitled ‘Postcode Lottery’ gives the whole game away. It states “Over a quarter of local authorities in GB offer no specialised service at all”. Then, at the end of a set of bullet points on the key findings of the EHRC / EVAW research, it says: “All Local Authorities in Wales and Scotland have at least one service but 30% (109) in England have no service”. QED: the ‘quarter of local authorities in GB’ with no specialised service are the same local authorities as the 30% of English ones with no service, because every single authority in Scotland and Wales has at least one service. And that’s why there’s no red colouring on the ‘regional’ map for Scotland and Wales under the search term ‘violence against women services’.
This is the real news story and the real scandal of inadequate care to vulnerable women that the media totally failed to pick up on on Friday. I first spotted the story in the print version of the Guardian, where there was nothing to indicate that the local authorities with serious deficiencies were almost all located in England until some way into the report, where it referred to the EHRC report’s statistics about provision in England and Wales – Wales being included because it is lacking in certain types of care, such as rape crisis centres. The rat that I was already smelling positively stank me out when I watched the Channel 4 News report where, again, no mention was made of the fact that England was the only UK country where there were local authorities without any form of provision – despite the fact that they showed the ‘map of gaps’ (as above), with red bits only in England. And the Channel 4 report mentioned that the best-performing local authority in ‘Britain’ was Glasgow – surprise, surprise. Could the reason for this just perhaps be because it was a Scottish local authority, benefiting from superior funding and the political backing of the Scottish government, which appeared to be the reason why there were no red bits on the Scottish part of the map?
But, as I said above, the specifically English dimension of deficient provision simply wasn’t on the EHRC’s radar. Or perhaps, rather, it was being deliberately obfuscated in the usual way: by referring to everything as ‘Britain’ this and ‘the country’ that; ‘regional’ and postcode lotteries, not national. What interest would the EHRC have in obscuring the real economic and political issue here? After all, as an organisation, it’s supposed to have a UK-wide remit and should therefore be concerned to get to the bottom of any obvious apparent nationwide pattern of inequality and discrimination, no matter how politically awkward this might be.
Well, in theory, yes; but the UK government pays the EHRC’s wages and is its political master. In order to truly do justice to the inconsistencies in levels of provision across the different nations of the UK, the EHRC would have almost no alternative other than to point out that a major factor – perhaps the most fundamental one of all – is asymmetric devolution coupled with funding inequalities affecting the UK’s nations. They would have to emphasise that, whereas Scotland and Wales have national governments that have made the issue a priority, England is governed by the UK government that does not see it as part of its role to develop social policy specifically for England and to meet the needs of the English people as such. Hence, that government has delegated responsibility in the area of care for women victims of violence to local authorities – an approach which the EHRC itself says results in inadequate prioritisation and channelling of resources. Resources which are in any case more limited in England because of the funding disparities.
So the EHRC ought to be directing its fire against the UK government that is providing such inadequate and unequal care for the women of England – as it is for the people of England as a whole in so many other areas. But that would be too difficult, too likely to incur the wrath of its UK-government masters and threaten its ‘independence’. And so Trevor Philips’ imperious anger is directed at the English local authorities as an easier target: one which enables the blame that should be aimed at the UK government to be deflected, so the EHRC can be seen to be doing something while not getting to the real root of the problem – the fact that England itself is the victim of structural discrimination, resulting in lack of care towards its people’s needs and unequal treatment compared with the other UK nations.
Until the EHRC addresses this most egregious of violations of the principles of equality and human rights within the UK, it cannot have the credibility that it deserves as a defender of the rights of vulnerable people. In fact, rather than the EHRC threatening legal action against inadequately funded and politically unsupported English local authorities, it seems to me that the EHRC itself would be a suitable candidate for legal action. In this instance, at least, it is failing in its statutory duty to defend the principles of equality and human rights for all in the UK without discrimination. And English women are the losers as a result.
Email of protest sent to EHRC (email@example.com) – feel free to borrow it or the arguments above if you want to write, too:
“Dear Madam or Sir,
“I am writing to express my dismay at the failure of the EHRC and the media to address one of the most fundamental aspects of the question of inadequate provision of care for women victims of violence, which was the subject of prominent media coverage last Friday.
“It was completely obvious to me – and therefore must have been evident to thousands of others – that the local authorities with no provision at all were all located in England; while Scotland was the best-performing ‘region’. This is, as the EHRC’s press release itself acknowledges, because the (Scottish) government has made the issue a priority. There is also the additional fact that a higher per-capita level of public funding is available to the Scottish government on this issue, as on many others, owing to the inequalities of the Barnett Formula.
“This aspect of the question was barely touched upon in the media coverage; nor is it addressed in the EHRC’s own material on your website. However, it is fundamental to any consideration of inequalities and discrimination in social-service provision in the UK. England is discriminated against in two respects here: 1) no national government to drive the issue, as in Scotland and Wales (a key factor in the superior provision in Scotland, according to the EHRC itself); and 2) inferior funding.
“Instead of bullying and threatening the English local authorities over this issue, the EHRC should direct its fire at the UK government that is failing the English people by not exercising its responsibility to set policy and priorities in England – as there is no England-specific government to do this equivalent to those in Scotland and Wales. In fact, the EHRC itself should perhaps be the object of legal action, as it is failing to defend the people of England against the political and financial discrimination of which it is a victim at the hands of the UK government and as a result of asymmetric devolution. And, as inadequate provision of care for vulnerable women is a direct consequence of this structural discrimination, the EHRC as much as English local authorities are to blame for the present deficiencies so long as you persist in not calling the UK government to account.”