daily-expressBelow is a transcript of a paper that I presented at the West Midlands Regional Observatory conference, ‘Changing Populations’ on Tuesday 31st March 2009.

When considering issues of equality and diversity, it is very easy to get sidelined by statistics. This event today is not only about looking at the statistics of today but also about planning for the future: about making sure that we do not become statistically challenged and that our policies and strategies are ‘fit for purpose’. If we fail to achieve this in terms of equalities, then we will fail the challenge of ensuring the West Midlands region becomes a fairer and more equal place to live.

So how might we be statistically challenged?

Well a quick review of the information we have already highlights some real challenges in terms of equality and diversity, terms in themselves that we routinely bandy about but rarely engage with. So what do we know?

Headline figures and trends lay claim to the fact that the West Midlands is becoming increasingly diverse. Take for instance the marker of ‘race’ or ethnicity.

• Birmingham is already well on its way to becoming a minority majority city with the next two decades
• The fastest growing ethnic group – in terms of simplistic categorisations at least – are those of mixed or multiple heritage
• And international migration is making the region’s demography more diverse as new arrivals from Poland and the A8 countries join those migrants from the more traditional sites such as the Indian subcontinent

Beyond ‘race’, increasing diversity can be identified in terms of age and religion also:

• So whilst mixed heritage groups are the fastest growing, they also have the youngest demographic profile with approximately 55% being under the age of 15
• Across the wider region, the population is ageing, with dramatic growth expected amongst those aged 60 and over, and particularly those aged 85 and over
• In terms of religion, Birmingham has a disproportionately high percentage population of Muslims – a figure that is likely to increase even more in years to come
• And similarly, the population of Sikhs in Birmingham is roughly twice that of the national average and much higher in Wolverhampton

All well and good. We’re diverse and that has become a selling point for some, highlighting the balti mile in Birmingham for example. But is it working?

If we consider the issue of deprivation and inequality, we are able to see that the picture across vast swathes of the region is far from rosy and would suggest that something at least isn’t right.

• 166 Super Output Areas in the region are within the top 5% most deprived in the country
• 39.63% of people living in Birmingham are deemed to be living in deprived circumstances . Stoke-on-Trent (33.13%) and Sandwell (29.41%) are not too far behind
• 81% of children in the Ladywood ward are from families living in or on the brink of poverty (The Campaign to End Child Poverty). Sparkbrook & Small Heath (79%), Hodge Hill (75%), Erdington (64%), Perry Barr (61%), Wolverhampton South East (62%), Walsall South (61%), Warley (61%), West Bromwich West (60%) and Stoke on Trent Central (60%) all have child poverty levels above 60%

Somewhat unsurprisingly, when you interrogate the data there is a major correlation between multiple deprivation and the concentration of ethnic minorities: of diversity. On the whole, there is a marked polarisation of wards: those with high levels of deprivation and a significant prevalence of minority groups, and those that are relatively wealthy where the vast majority of the population are white.

As the Compas report that mapped race and poverty across Birmingham highlighted, the higher the residential concentration of diverse ethnic groups, the more deprived the wards typically are.

So is diversity working for the region? Are we nearing a fairer and more equal society?

It is more than thirty years since the introduction of the first ‘equalities’ or ‘equal opportunities’ legislation yet there still seems to be a clear correlation between ‘diversity’, deprivation and inequality.

And this is where we could become statistically challenged because the headlines alone fail to present the fuller picture. Indeed, anomalies are beginning to show.

Take for instance the situation in both Shard End and Kingstanding. Both have majority white populations but they also have high levels of deprivation. Similarly, in recent years the lowest achieving group in terms of GCSE grades A-C at age 16 have been white males from the lowest socio-economic groups: the ‘white working classes’.

Increasingly, ‘white working class’ communities are experiencing the same levels of deprivation, the same inequalities that more visible ethnic groups historically have suffered. But are they being picked up by either the statistics or the policies we’re putting in place? No, already groups that exist outside the traditional remit of equality and diversity policies are slipping through the net.

Policies that have been designed to make society a fairer, more equal place therefore do not seem to have been able to do their job. If that is the case, then how can we expect the same policies to be able to respond and react to even greater complexity as the demographic of the region continues to change, not least because ‘diversity’ will be increasingly ‘invisible’. Take for example the growing ‘mixed heritage’ populations referred to previously or the ‘white other’ – including those such as the Polish: how do we legislate or design strategies that are relevant and inclusive to them?

Add to this the fact that identities are increasingly multi-layered and amorphous – neither majority nor minority being homogenous or fixed – and that the 24th British Social Attitudes Survey suggested that more than one in three of the population already felt that ‘equality’ policies had ‘gone too far’ and the task begins to appear almost insurmountable.

How then do policy makers and those in positions of leadership redress those seemingly endemic inequalities and move forward with good equalities policies and strategies in the face of these unprecedented changes?

Partly because of lessons we have learned the hard way – from the mistakes that have been made in the past – now is the time that those in positions of influence and power need to acknowledge that a newer and more inclusive framework for equalities is desperately needed. With the identified population changes counterbalanced against the statistics in hand, two things appear to be necessary: first, to move beyond ‘ethnicised’ approaches to equalities; second, to eradicate ‘silo’ models.

What do I mean by these?

First off, there is the notion held by many that equality is essentially a “BME issue”, where the challenges of difference and the consequence of inequality and deprivation can be solved by having appropriately diverse representation, appropriately diverse workforces, and “culturally sensitive” services: all of which will become increasingly difficult to fulfill. None of these things are being entirely dismissed I hasten to add but they do all have a role to in ‘compartmentalising’ people and communities that can – and indeed have – reinforced divisions and inequalities rather than address them.

And from this comes the second point: the silo models of equality. As with any of the seven equalities strands – race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, trans – the problem with the conventional ‘compartmentalised’ view of equality is that only one aspect of someone’s identity becomes the main determinant of how you are seen. And so equalities becomes something that can be understood through ticking the box and merely placing individuals and communities into distinct silos but as this too becomes increasingly multi-layered and super-complex, how do we deal with this?

Given that we have already acknowledged that diversity will unequivocally become less ‘visible’ and that distinct identities are already increasingly multi-layered, neither of these approaches are going to be ‘fit for task’ in the future.

‘What’ you are – or possibly even what you are perceived to be – have therefore been the main determinants for setting out the terms for how the state and its local institutions relate to individuals and diverse communities that in turn have also been used to identify the “needs” those same individuals and communities are perceived likely to have.

And that is the central problem with traditional approaches to equality:

That despite the best of intentions, equalities has been traditionally defined as something we do to and for the benefit of “others”

And those that sit under the headline banner of ‘diversity’ are defined first and foremost by homogenous and compartmentalised identities

The way forward then is to devise or identify more inclusive models of equality: to try and address why existing approaches to ‘equality’ have failed to deliver a more equal society. To do this, we need approaches that focus not on how we act towards diversity – people and groups that are both increasing in number and are becoming increasingly diverse – but how we act fairly and decently towards each other, ensuring that all people are treated with fairness, dignity, respect, autonomy and as a result of these, equality.

To achieve this, there needs to be a profound shift in the thinking underpinning the equalities agenda. To achieve this, policies and strategies across the entire region will need to immediately move away from the old ‘silos’ of equality, in which they are engaged primarily as a means of outlawing discriminatory and prejudicial behaviour. New policies and strategies need to be built upon the principles of social justice, of inclusion, of diversity, where diversity is a source of power and not weakness: one where it is not about tokens and quotas and special privileges. With the challenges that population change is presenting to us, doing equalities is not a resource that can afford to be squandered. It is though a unique opportunity from where a more integrated view in which standards of behaviour and service entitlements derive not from special consideration for a particular ethnic or other identity, but from our rights as citizens, as humans, as people.

Of course this won’t be easy and some searching if not potentially controversial questions around the shaping and implementation of regional policies and strategies will need to be asked. So for example:

• How do we respect the right to be different with the right to be equal?
• And if the right to equal participation, access, opportunity and the right to autonomy all pull in different directions, how do we strike a balance between political equality and cultural diversity?
• Do we have to sacrifice personal liberty for the sake of social cohesion, or vice versa?
• And ultimately, in the face of rapid and dynamic change, are there limits to diversity? Are there limits to what can be achieved?

The list of questions could go on almost endlessly and do not make good bedtime reading. The task really is that great.

But this should not allow you to be put off. The opportunity now is to forge a new and more progressive framework for how we think about, promote, and practise equalities. With the principles of fairness, dignity, respect, autonomy and ultimately, equality for all underpinning all that we do, no longer will equalities be about what we do to and for the benefit of “others”. In fact, no longer are we going to be able to equalities in this way.

A copy of the powerpoint slides that accompanied this paper should be available to view here.

Creative Commons License

This work by Chris Allen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. Based on a work at www.chris-allen.co.uk.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond Statistically Challenged: ‘Changing Populations’ conference at the West Midlands Regional Observatory

  1. Chris
    you might wish to have a read of my article in the TES (if you search my name, you will get it), where I argue that the white working class perhaps should be treated as an ‘ethnic minority’

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