Everyone’s Battle Everyone’s Business – the Council’s new Equality Plan

This 44 page document was adopted by Cabinet on 18 May.* It has many positive principles and plans for action which should be put into practice by the Council and supported by trade unions and community and campaigning organisations. There are also elements which need strengthening, some existing policies need to be reworked or scrapped, and one major reform is needed: to open up the closed Cabinet system in order to ‘put the citizens’ voice at the heart of decision-making’.

‘The facts about inequality in our city are stark and challenging.’

It begins with data about structural inequality in Birmingham. Here are just some examples:

  • Birmingham has high levels of deprivation with 40% of the population living in the 10% most deprived areas of England.
  • According to figures published by the End Poverty Campaign, in 2018/19, 41.6% of our children were growing up in poverty. It was also reported that three Birmingham constituencies have over 50% of children in poverty.
  • Birmingham’s life expectancy is lower than the national average for both men and women. There is a nine year difference in the life expectancy of people who live in deprived communities and those from more affluent areas.
  • Working-class individuals are also more likely to be on low incomes, earning 24 per cent less than those from professional backgrounds.
  • Over 3 in 10 disabled people live in poverty compared to only 2 in 10 nondisabled people.
  • Many of the issues such as poverty, low pay and skills, mental health and homelessness – continue to disproportionately affect women.
  • 45% of single parents, the vast majority (90%) of which are women, are living in poverty.
  • Almost one in five LGBT+ people (18%) have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives.

‘Key Principles to address structural barriers’

Everyone’s Battle Everyone’s Business is based on five Key Principles for Tackling Inequalities:

  1. A focus on equity
  2. Actively listening to the voices of lived experience
  3. Understand the diverse range of views and perspectives of citizens and ensure solutions are based on the widest available evidence.
  4. Language counts
  5. Place matters

Tackling Inequalities Action Plan

 Pages 26 to 40 of the document spell out the planned actions under five headings:

  • Equality Objective 1 Understand our diverse communities and embed that understanding in how we shape policy and practice across the Council
  • Equality Objective 2 Demonstrate inclusive leadership, partnership and a clear organisational commitment to be a leader in equality, diversity and inclusion in the city
  • Equality Objective 3 Involve and enable our diverse communities to play an active role in civic society and put the citizens’ voice at the heart of decision-making
  • Equality Objective 4 Deliver responsive services and customer care that is accessible and inclusive to individual’s needs and respects faith, beliefs and cultural difference
  • Equality Objective 5 Encourage and build a skilled and diverse workforce to build a culture of equity and inclusion in everything we do.

Putting ‘the citizens’ voice at the heart of decision-making’

There isn’t space here to deal with all the issues in the Action Plan but one key one is democratic participation in the policy-making process. The document says:

  1. Actively listen to the voices of lived experience

‘Those who are affected by inequalities should be at the heart of designing solutions – they should be around the decision-making table, reflecting the fact that we can only change the structure of society by changing who designs it. It was clear from the consultation that we don’t have a sufficiently strategic approach to community engagement. Consultation fatigue and lack of feedback have become all too familiar terms expressed by communities. We need to work with community-based organisations to design inclusive ways that engage seldom heard voices and then maintaining the dialogue.’ (p22)

Equality Objective 3. Involve and enable our diverse communities to play an active role in civic society and put the citizens’ voice at the heart of decision-making

‘We want to increase democratic engagement and promote civic participation of diverse communities in the decision-making processes of the council and wider City leadership structures. We will take active steps to engage, listen and learn, especially from those who have traditionally struggled to be heard…’ (p32)

‘Develop an inclusive citizen engagement model to ensure that the city’s diverse communities are fully represented, including those that often struggle to get a hearing. This will enable us to work with communities to properly understand the different experiences of inequalities and together, decide the immediate and longer-term measures needed to address them.’ By July 2021. (p32)

‘Continue to progress and develop the Council’s cross-Directorate “Working Together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods” policy to ensure: community and neighbourhood organisations representing diverse communities can be properly heard and influence decision-making;’ (p33)

This last proposal refers to the Council’s Ward Forums policy. These should be regular opportunities, at least every two months, for citizens to meet with their local Councillors, raise issues, and put forward proposals to the Council leadership. But as we wrote in BATC on 12 January,

‘Birmingham’s Ward Forum system is broken. There are supposed to be Ward Forums in each of the 69 Wards, meeting 6 times a year with their councillors. But in 2020 21 Ward Forums never met at all, even online.’

Since then nothing seems to have been done to fix it. Many wards are still holding few Forums or none at all. The Council needs to urgently require all Councillors to implement the Council policy, and provide online training for all who haven’t been doing so.

How to really ‘Put the citizens’ voice at the heart of decision-making’ 

But that is only part of the solution. Putting ‘the citizens’ voice at the heart of decision-making’ means a more radical step is needed. The heart of the Council’s decision-making is the Cabinet. At present there is no structured relationship between the Cabinet and citizens. The only input that  the people of Birmingham can have is either the goodwill and capacity of Councillors to raise their concerns with Cabinet members; or petitions to Council meetings; or responding to the various consultation exercises that the Cabinet chooses to open up. None of these are putting ‘the citizens’ voice at the heart of decision-making’. In fact they keep people out. (They also keep the large majority of councillors out of the decision-making process too.) Yes there are Scrutiny Committees, but they consist of Councillors with no citizen representation there either.

How to open up the closed Cabinet system 

The real cause at the root of the problem is the Cabinet system itself. But there is a practical solution: create a Cabinet Committee for each Cabinet service sector (education, social care, transport, the economy etc) with representatives of citizens from Ward Forums and community organisations and trade unions, together with some councillors.

Each Committee should be be accompanied by regular City-wide Forums for each service sector, comprising a representative from each of the 69 wards together with representatives of community organisations and unions. The Forums would elect the representatives on the Cabinet Committees.

As the document says, ‘we cannot deliver this agenda alone. Partnership with other sectors, agencies and crucially, our communities and citizens, is the only way we will deliver meaningful change in our society and economy.’ Partnership means opening up the closed Cabinet system. This new model is not intended to undermine representative democracy through elected Councillors but to complement it, creating a new and enriched system of participatory democracy for the city.

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