By James Kirkup (13 January 2009)
Published in The Telegraph here
Social class could be put on the same legal footing as race and gender under new Government plans to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
A new law will be drawn up to put public bodies including schools, hospitals and local councils under a binding obligation to work to improve the prospects of disadvantaged youngsters.
The suggestion was made in a package of new Government measures intended to make it easier for children from low-income households to rise up the economic ladder.
It has led to renewed accusations that Labour is resorting to the politics of class war.
The package also includes a new initiative encouraging the best universities to target the brightest children from poor schools.
There will also be more taxpayer-funded childcare for the parents of two-year-olds in poor families, career-development loans for middle-class professionals who want to retrain and £10,000 "golden handcuffs" payments to lure the best teachers to the worst-performing schools.
Another initiative will see affluent parts of Britain "twinned" with sink estates and other deprived areas, with poorer children encouraged to visit other areas in order to "expand their horizons and their experiences".
The most politically controversial aspect of the package however, is likely to be the planned "class law," which is being promoted by Harriet Harman, the Labour deputy leader.
Miss Harman will introduce a Single Equalities Bill later this year, and has already signalled that the legislation could allow employers to engage in positive discrimination to favour female and ethnic minority job applicants.
In a White Paper published on Tuesday, the Government signalled that the planned law could go further, effectively telling the public sector to consider social class as a factor equal to race, gender and disability when deciding how money, services and even jobs should be allocated.
The White Paper suggests imposing an "over-arching requirement on public authorities to address the inequalities people face associated with where they live, their family background or the job they do"
Officials said the law would "embed" social class in the day-to-day work of public officials and civil servants, making them consider the economic circumstances of individuals, groups and areas in the same way they currently consider sex and ethnicity.
The White Paper directly compares class with race and gender, saying: "We have already legislated to require public authorities to tackle the inequality that arises from race, gender, or disability. But we know that inequality does not just come from your gender or ethnicity, your sexual orientation or your disability. Co-existing and interwoven with these specific inequalities lies the persistent inequality of social class."
As a result, ministers may legislate to make clear that "tackling socio-economic disadvantage and narrowing gaps in outcomes for people from different backgrounds is a core function of key public services."
This could take the form of a new "strategic duty" on Whitehall departments and public services to "address the inequality that arises from socioeconomic disadvantage and place this objective at the core of their policies and programmes."
If that "duty" were extended to cover employment policy, it could raise the prospect of unsuccessful job applicants suiing employers for discriminating against them because of their class.
Officials said the final form of any legislation would be subject to consultation with unions, business groups and others.
But ideas under discussion in Whitehall could have significant impact on the way public bodies deliver services.
In healthcare, for instance, NHS trusts could be obliged to focus resources on issues like anti-smoking campaigns, because poor people are more likely to smoke than their middle-class counterparts. And police forces could be pushed to concentrate manpower in poorer areas.
Miss Harman is said to harbour ambitions to succeed Gordon Brown as Labour leader and was elected the party's deputy leader in 2007 with strong support from grassroots members. She has sought to consolidate that popularity by appealing to left-wingers with frequent references to social class in recent months.
She is expected to focus on class again in a speech to the Fabian Society on Saturday, pledging to fashion "a new social order" in Britain. "We want to do more than just provide escape routes out of poverty for a talented few. We want to tackle the class divide," she will say.
Theresa May, Miss Harman's Conservative shadow, accused her of political posturing. "Harriet Harman's attempts to play up to the left wing gallery look like a return to the class war," she said.
She added: "Harriet Harman's legislation would lead to bureaucrats ticking extra sets of boxes on forms but none of the real changes that are needed to improve social mobility. This law shows ministers are completely missing the point about the action needed to extend opportunity across society."
Tom Clougherty of the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think-tank also criticised the Government approach.
He said: "It is patronising and dehumanising to treat people as a member of a class rather than looking at them as individuals and assessing them on the unique characteristics and abilities they have developed."
"Legislation is likely to be counterproductive -- the way to get away from these divisions is to stop thinking about people as groups and start looking at them as individuals.