Departments need to deal with their data gaps if government is serious about tackling inequality

The Equality and Human Rights Commission today launches ‘Is Britain Fairer?’, a comprehensive assessment of Britain’s progress on equality and human rights in the last five years. But, as the EHRC's Verena Brähler writes, a lack of data is preventing public sector bodies from getting the full picture – and could be leaving some groups invisible

By Verena Brähler

30 Oct 2015

"Is Britain Fairer?" – published today – is the Equality and Human Rights Commission five-yearly report on equality and human rights progress in England, Scotland and Wales. It provides a wealth of evidence that will support parliament and policymakers to focus on some of the biggest challenges facing our society.

The review covers 43 indicators across 10 major areas of everyday life, including education, employment, standard of living, health, justice, security, identity and participation. Over the past 12 months, around 15 researchers and statisticians have examined thousands of quantitative and qualitative sources, engaged with 240 organisations, and produced 1,840 pages of evidence.

However, despite this apparent wealth of information, a lack of data remains a major issue for the future because it limits us in our ability to assess how fair Britain truly is and renders some people in the most vulnerable situations invisible. In doing so, it compounds the disadvantages such groups already face by hiding them and their issues from the decision-makers who set priorities and shape services. 

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These ‘information black holes’ can be explained by several factors.

We now have less detailed information compared to five years ago because public authorities have stopped running certain surveys. For instance, without the TellUs Survey, which was discontinued in 2010, we have no source of national figures on bullying in schools. We all know that being bullied at school can have an impact on individuals for many years or even decades after. If we had better knowledge of the extent and causes of the problems in our schools, we could give children a better start in life.

The Citizenship Survey was also stopped. While it was partially replaced by the Community Life Survey, this doesn’t have the scope the previous survey provided.

The reductions of sample sizes in major national surveys have also limited our ability to obtain statistically robust findings for all protected characteristics. For example, the sample size of the Family Resources Survey was reduced by 5,000 households across Great Britain in April 2011. The sample size of the Crime Survey for England and Wales was reduced from 46,000 adults in 2008/09 to 35,000 in 2012/13.

Another issue is that people are combined into one big group, even though their experiences differ. This is the case, for instance, with disabled people who are often lumped together in one category, regardless of the nature of their impairment.

From anecdotal evidence we know that transgender people routinely suffer discrimination and harassment. However, without robust and comprehensive research it is difficult to estimate the extent of this. Monitoring the position of Gypsies and Travellers is also difficult. While separate identification of the group has moved forward – they were included as a separate ethnic group in the 2011 Census and in a number of social surveys – under-reporting and sample size are still issues.

To better target areas of discrimination, more sophisticated analysis is needed to examine how multiple factors impact on people’s life chances. For instance, we looked at homicides, suicides and poor mental health by age and gender. Also, we looked at the evidence on educational performance by gender, race and socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, across 43 different indicators the potential combinations are so numerous that we only managed to shed light on a small fraction of these interconnections.

It is fair to say that it is not all bad news – there are also areas where data availability has improved in recent years. There is now an increasing availability of administrative data on outcomes of vulnerable children, as well as survey data that is disaggregated by sexual identity, which are welcome developments.

In the future, we will need to monitor this issue of data gaps closely and address it where we can. We want to identify and exploit opportunities for securing better data, for instance by working closely with government departments and other organisations to ensure that published data is disaggregated by protected characteristics wherever the underlying data is collected, and that sample size is sufficient.

Data gaps are a challenge that affects us all. Only if we gather the right information can we identify the scale and nature of discrimination and take appropriate measures to rectify it.

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