Structurally Unsound – Exploring structural inequalities in the UK

Oliver Patel, Research Assistant on the Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality project, Exploring Inequalities: Igniting research to better inform UK policy, reports from the launch of Structurally Unsound a major new report examining structural inequalities in UK society.

After nine months, six roundtables, dozens of interviews and countless weeks of writing, the time finally came to launch our project’s report. Structurally Unsound – Exploring Inequalities: igniting research to better inform UK policy was published on 8 October 2019 and launched with a public event at the Resolution Foundation, our project partners.

The panel consisted of project lead Siobhan Morris (UCL Grand Challenge of Justice & Equality), Sam Smethers (Chief Executive of The Fawcett Society), Dr Olivia Stevenson (UCL Public Policy), Matthew Whittaker (Resolution Foundation) and Sir Simon Woolley (Director of Operation Black Vote). Panel at launch of Structurally Unsound

Siobhan Morris kicked things off with a presentation on the report’s main findings. She outlined the report’s five cross-cutting themes and corresponding approaches for equity to be considered and utilised by researchers, advocates and policymakers working to address structural inequalities. Dr Olivia Stevenson then explained how these five approaches are all inter-related and cannot be considered in isolation, nor as a hierarchy. The approaches are:

1. Language: recognise that language matters
2. Opportunity: shift the focus onto equity
3. Understanding evidence: ensure diversity of evidence in decision making
4. Voice: change the structure of society by changing who designs it
5. Place: adopt a place-based approach

Sir Simon Woolley gave his perspective on how UK structural inequalities can be combatted, noting that while we can make a difference, we need political will and robust evidence to do so. He argued that the very basis of UK society is “structurally unsound”, as it is built on endemic inequality stemming from the British Empire and the slave trade. He also highlighted the uncanny resemblance between the University of Oxford debating chamber and the House of Commons.

Sir Simon argued that in these divisive times, we need real leadership from politicians, policymakers and think tanks to tackle these issues and challenged the audience to speak up, challenge injustice and, before anything else, look at themselves. He ended by arguing that combating inequalities is win-win, as it entails the unleashing of talent and creativity into society, claiming that “there is potential talent in every city, town and street of the country”.

Sam Smethers, challenged Sir Simon and noted that sometimes tackling inequalities is a zero-sum game. Difficult choices often have to be made, and people in privileged positions need to relinquish a level of advantage they have in order to promote equality. She also argued that charities and civil society organisations need to do much more to analyse and work on issues in an intersectional way.

Sam argued that, when considering the social gradient in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy, any increases to retirement ages are unfair, as poorer people will spend less time in retirement and could end up subsidising wealthier retirees. Similarly, the care burden which women take on is also unrecognised and unjust. She ended by highlighting that the only way meaningful change will be achieved is through serious, radical and uncomfortable interventions. She noted one such intervention could be to change the world of work so that every job is flexible by default unless there is a strong business case against doing so.

The event closed with a lively audience Q&A, with questions on topics such as equity versus equality, what uncomfortable interventions have been implemented, and whether private schools should be abolished. Sir Simon and Sam both assured the crowd that they are optimists, and that they wouldn’t be doing the jobs they do if they didn’t believe that real, meaningful change was realistic and achievable. Sam, for example, noted that issues relating to the gender pay gap were not taken seriously a few years ago but have now become a policy priority with corresponding legislation. Ending on another optimistic note, Olivia was hopeful that when Brexit consumes less bandwidth, and politicians have more time to focus on the domestic agenda, our report can be used as a roadmap by those who want to make a difference and tackle structural inequalities in the UK.

Watch the full event below and read the report here.