Social workers have a key role to play in embedding the Equality Act 2010’s anti-discriminatory objectives in practice by improving information collected about, and provided to, service users.
Latest research findings:
The Equality Act 2010 replaced previous anti-discrimination laws with a single piece of legislation to make the law simpler and remove inconsistencies. It covers nine so-called ‘protected characteristics’ which cannot be used as a reason to treat people unfairly. These are:
- gender reassignment
- marriage and civil partnership
- pregnancy and maternity
- religion or belief
- sexual orientation
Most provisions of the Act came into force in 2010, with the last – age discrimination – being implemented in October 2012, but there is still very little research-based evidence about how it has affected people’s experiences of using social care services.
The government has announced that it will abolish equality impact assessments as part of its commitment to reducing bureaucracy (Mulholland, 2012). This highlights how research into equalities takes place within a changing political context.
Researchers tend to use two main ways to measure discrimination. The first considers whether people from certain groups are more or less likely to use a particular service. Stonewall (2011) surveyed a group of heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people aged 55 and over living in Britain and found that past experiences of discrimination meant lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents were less willing to use social and health services than their heterosexual counterparts.
Among younger people, research carried out by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England (2012) found that 16- to 17-year-olds found it difficult to access social care and mental health services, and experienced difficulties with transition between provision for children and adults.
The second method examines whether certain groups have different experiences and, if so, whether this could lead to different outcomes. Bignall and Butt (2000) spoke to young black people with disabilities. Many of their participants thought they had been treated ‘differently’, although it was not always clear if they had been made to feel ‘different’ because of their ethnicity or their disability.
In their survey of people using personal budgets, Hatton and Waters (2011) found no differences in outcomes between participants on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, or religion. However, older adults tended to report less positive outcomes. There were too few participants who recorded their sexual orientation to enable the authors to examine this aspect.
Brown and Kershaw (2008) have pointed out that “changing the law might be one thing, but changing people’s attitudes is another”. Debates are emerging about the best way to collect information about different protected characteristics – especially in relation to sexual and gender identity. There is also more awareness of the need to identify where there is multiple, or intersecting, discrimination – discrimination on the grounds of two or more protected characteristics.
The impact research should have on practice:
Social work was one of the first professions to address the issue of discrimination and many social workers will already be familiar with many of the issues that predominate in research about equalities.
A major challenge for social workers is finding the best way to ask and record equality monitoring data. Questions about the protected characteristics are almost always included in ‘tick box’ format on assessment forms and care plans.
However, using open questions is sometimes a better way of collecting this information, especially with sensitive topics. Many older lesbian, gay and bisexual people choose not to be ‘out’, and lines of questioning that do not assume people are heterosexual can help people feel that they can talk openly about their sexual orientation.
Although we are much more familiar with being asked questions about our ethnicity than our religion, there are some circumstances where ethno-religious information is more important in revealing inequalities than questions about ethnicity alone. In an increasingly religiously diverse society, social workers are in a strong position to document the links between religious belief (including having no religion) and equality.
Research with service providers and people using services has suggested that inclusive publicity material that shows users from many different backgrounds, statements endorsing an organisation’s commitment to diversity, and evidence that staff have received training in equality and diversity, can help to encourage under-represented groups to use a particular service.
Social workers can help improve their organisation’s publicity material by asking service users and carers for feedback on it. This is likely to elicit more detailed responses than those given in consumer surveys or feedback on websites.
Questions for social workers to reflect on:
- In terms of their protected characteristics, can you think of any groups that are under- and over-represented in your current caseload, or that of your team? Can you think of any reasons for this under- or over-representation?
- Some protected characteristics have been researched more than others. For example, we have very little information on transgender people. Can you think of any ways in which lack of information increases the chances of discrimination? What are some of the consequences?
- What arrangements does your organisation have for improving equality and diversity? Are there any ways in which social workers can be involved in shaping its policies?