19 August 2022 Poverty and policing: could the socioeconomic duty be applied to policing?

Simply punishing people who commit crimes will not get to the root causes of crime, namely, poverty. The police are likely to encounter more and more of poverty-driven offences as the country battles through a cost-of-living crisis. As of mid-August 2022, inflation has hit a 40-year high, and energy and food bills are rapidly becoming unaffordable for millions of people. An urgent response to this is needed, but the police themselves cannot eradicate poverty.

Living in a socioeconomically deprived neighbourhood means that it is much more likely for a person to be both the victim and the perpetrator of a crime.[1] Poorer areas continue to be targets of ‘hotspot policing’, with their residents tending to be over policed and disproportionately criminalised. Besides, the current cost of living crisis may result in an upswing in acquisitive crime, and an increase in crimes caused by poor mental health.

What Revolving Doors felt was needed, within policing, was a unique approach to socioeconomic disadvantage. In October 2021, we published a Socioeconomic Duty Toolkit, to be used as a practical guide for Police and Crime Commissioners to embed a socioeconomic duty in their strategic decision-making and thereby challenge poverty through policing. At our launch, we were joined by Kim McGuiness, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria as well as the Child Poverty Action Group and Just Fair, to discuss how vital it is to address poverty – a key driver of crime – if we are to truly beat crime.

What is a socioeconomic duty?

The aim of the socioeconomic duty is to deliver better outcomes for people who experience socioeconomic disadvantage. It requires public bodies to make better decisions, by considering the inequality of outcomes that arises from socioeconomic disadvantage as central in their strategic decision-making.

Both Wales and Scotland have a socioeconomic duty in place under the Equality Act 2010. The Equality and Human Rights Commission monitors and develops best practice for the duty. The socioeconomic duty was first adopted in Scotland in April 2018, and, since April 2021, has been in place in Wales

In Scotland, the socioeconomic duty, known as the Fairer Scotland Duty, places a legal responsibility on particular Scottish public bodies to actively consider, when making strategic decisions, how they can reduce inequalities of outcome caused by socioeconomic disadvantage, The Scottish Police Authority are bound by this duty, meaning that they must be able to meet ‘the key requirement’ in each case, i.e. to actively consider how they could reduce inequalities of outcome in any major strategic decision they make; and to publish a written record, showing how they have complied with this obligation.

In Wales, several public bodies have been required to comply with a socioeconomic duty since March 2021. Although Police and Crime Commissioners in Wales are not statutorily bound to the duty, due to policing not being devolved, views in a public consultation on the duty favoured Police and Crime Commissioners in Wales being expected to ‘naturally embed the socio-economic duty further into their strategic decision-making.’ The Welsh government encourages all public bodies, including those that are not listed within the Regulations, to act in the spirit of the duty – by considering resources made available to support them in their decision-making.

What are the benefits of referring to a socioeconomic duty?

Just Fair’s Practical Guide for Local Authority Implementation of the Socio-Economic Duty outlines various benefits that come with acting in the spirit of a socioeconomic duty. These include (but are not limited to): improving outcomes for local people experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage, supporting the participation of low-income residents in policing decisions that affect them – especially in the context of strategic decision-making, and strengthening data gathering and analysis – giving public bodies a greater understanding of the needs of their communities.

When putting together the socioeconomic duty toolkit, Revolving Doors spoke to the Equality and Human Rights Commission who told us:

“We believe the duty can help reduce the most pressing inequalities of outcome exacerbated by the pandemic by helping organisations ensure their decision-making takes full account of socio-economic disadvantage. By adopting the duty, regional authorities can help support inclusive approaches to strategic decision-making across their organisations.”

How do you undertake a socioeconomic duty?

One of the key pillars of undertaking a socioeconomic duty is giving ‘due regard’ to socioeconomic disadvantage when making strategic decisions, which requires active consideration, participation, and proportionality.

Active consideration means that public bodies must effectively consider whether there are opportunities within their strategic decision to reduce inequalities of outcome based on socioeconomic disadvantage.

Participation means involving in the process, those who may be directly affected by the decision,  through measures such as forums and engagement activities.

Proportionality means giving a level of due regard that is proportionate to the scale of socio-economic disadvantage and expected inequalities of outcome with regard to the strategic decision being made. 

How could this apply to policing?

The most effective way for Police and Crime Commissioners and police forces to act in the spirit of the socioeconomic duty is to incorporate the duty into their strategic decision- making, by giving due regard to socioeconomic deprivation. PCCs should give such due regard in their planning, budgeting and resource allocation, to ensure none of these processes may disadvantage people who are experiencing socioeconomic deprivation, and, furthermore, so that they may indeed serve to improve the lives of people experiencing socioeconomic deprivation.

When developing Police and Crime Plans and reflecting on successes and accountability in annual reports, Police and Crime Commissioners should take reasonable steps to involve socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in the planned development of resources. This could include meaningfully consulting with communities on particular elements of the plan, by working to understand their experiences of poverty, policing, and crime, as well as understanding how the police can improve their lives and if any policing tactics have a particularly negative impact on them. PCCs could therefore consider setting up and facilitating forums that would assemble people with lived experience of socioeconomic disadvantage in their areas, to inform the implementation and monitoring of the socioeconomic duty.

Police and Crime Commissioners and police forces should work with local communities to understand the level of impact their strategies and decisions may have on socioeconomically disadvantaged people. For example, stop and search tactics, use of out-of-court disposals, and concentrated focus of police resources on a particular area will be more likely to impact on equality of outcome for socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.

Our call to action

To support positive engagement between communities and the police, and for police resources to be used most effectively, we are calling on Police and Crime Commissioners to consider the link between socioeconomic disadvantage and crime in their Police and Crime Plans and adjoining resource allocation, budgeting, and strategic decisions.

We hope that this will serve to divert people committing poverty-driven crimes away from the criminal justice system, and into services that can help them turn their lives around – as well as improve relations between the police and communities. In helping to facilitate this, PCCs can take inspiration from the socioeconomic duty which is in place in Wales and Scotland.

Join us to ‘Reset and Rethink’ the criminal justice system

Revolving Doors are embarking on a new, long-term project creating a platform for innovative, bold and solutions-focused discussions on the need for a system-reset. One of the key questions that we will be considering, in line with the ICP Alliance, is ‘is it a crime to be poor?’. We will be bringing together people with lived experience of the criminal justice system and poverty, academics, journalists, public sector officials and politicians from across the political spectrum to contribute to this discussion in the form of think-pieces, roundtables, and podcasts.

For more information, please contact Zahra Wynne at zahra.wynne@revolving-doors.org.uk


[1] https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/uk-poverty-causes-costs-and-solutions

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