On 14 April 2021, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:

Baroness Lister of Burtersett to move that the Grand Committee takes note of the case for building an inclusive society in the post-pandemic world; and the steps that national and local government will need to take to achieve an inclusive society in the United Kingdom.

What is an inclusive society?

It was at the World Summit for Social Development, held in Copenhagen in 1995, that world leaders defined an inclusive society as a “society for all”. This would be a society “in which every individual, each with rights and responsibilities, has an active role to play”. A ‘programme of action’ accompanying the summit declaration elaborated:

Such an inclusive society must be based on respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms, cultural and religious diversity, social justice and the special needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, democratic participation, and the rule of law.

The summit declaration noted social exclusion, poverty and unemployment as particularly profound social problems affecting every country. In response, the declaration included ten policy commitments to help drive social development. Among these was a promise to “promote social integration based on the enhancement and protection of all human rights”. This was accompanied by undertakings at both national and international levels. The commitment said:

We commit ourselves to promoting social integration by fostering societies that are stable, safe and just and that are based on the promotion and protection of all human rights, as well as on non-discrimination, tolerance, respect for diversity, equality of opportunity, solidarity, security, and participation of all people, including disadvantaged and vulnerable groups and persons.

The summit’s programme of action noted that a failure of social integration could lead to social fragmentation and polarisation; widening disparities and inequalities; and strains on individuals, families, communities and institutions as a result of factors such as the rapid pace of social change, economic transformation and migration.

More recently, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed in 2015, included a goal in respect of building inclusive societies. This is to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. It has 12 associated targets that cover a range of issues. Examples include significantly reducing all forms of violence; promoting the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensuring equal access to justice for all; ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels; and the promotion and enforcement of non-discriminatory laws and policies.

The concept of social inclusion is linked to that of social cohesion. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) explains the two concepts as follows:

  • Social inclusion is the process by which efforts are made to ensure equal opportunities—that everyone, regardless of their background, can achieve their full potential in life. Such efforts include policies and actions that promote equal access to (public) services as well as enable citizens’ participation in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.
  • Social cohesion is a related concept that parallels that of social integration in many respects. A socially cohesive society is one where all groups have a sense of belonging, participation, inclusion, recognition and legitimacy. Such societies are not necessarily demographically homogenous. Rather, by respecting diversity, they harness the potential residing in their societal diversity (in terms of ideas, opinions, skills, etc). Therefore, they are less prone to slip into destructive patterns of tension and conflict when different interests collide.

The World Bank also promotes the importance of social inclusion. It describes this as the “process of improving the terms on which individuals and groups take part in society—improving the ability, opportunity, and dignity of those disadvantaged on the basis of their identity”. The bank has noted that in every country there are some groups that “confront barriers that prevent them from fully participating in political, economic and social life”, adding:

These groups may be excluded not only through legal systems, land, and labour markets, but also discriminatory or stigmatising attitudes, beliefs, or perceptions. Disadvantage is often based on social identity, which may be across dimensions of gender, age, location, occupation, race, ethnicity, religion, citizenship status, disability, and sexual orientation and gender identity, among other factors. This kind of social exclusion robs individuals of dignity, security, and the opportunity to lead a better life. Unless the root causes of structural exclusion and discrimination are addressed, it will be challenging to support sustainable inclusive growth and rapid poverty reduction.

The bank has said that aiming for social inclusion is not only “the right thing to do”, but “also makes good economic sense”. It contends that left unaddressed, the exclusion of disadvantaged groups, or the perception of exclusion, can be costly for both individuals and societies.

Building inclusive societies after the pandemic

UN Secretary General António Guterres has noted that the Covid-19 pandemic is “affecting every aspect of our societies”. While doing so, it is also “revealing the extent of exclusion that the most marginalized members of society experience”. The UN has said the pandemic is reversing progress towards the SDGs. In response, it has launched a Covid-19 Response and Recovery Trust Fund to help countries cope with and recover from the pandemic’s social and economic impacts. Inclusion is one of the ‘common principles’ that run through the fund’s investments, along with pursuing “concrete and immediate action” and “a focus on leaving no one behind”.

In February 2020, the UN Commission for Social Development held a session that included a ministerial forum meeting to mark the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Copenhagen Declaration. Taking place a month before the World Health Organisation assessed Covid-19 as a pandemic, the focus of the forum was affordable housing and social protection systems to address homelessness. Chaired by Dame Louise Casey (now Baroness Casey of Blackstock), co-founder and chair of the Institute of Global Homelessness, the forum considered a range of issues and trends that were having an impact on social development. These included persistent poverty; high and rising inequality; economic and social impacts arising from population change; technological change and the future of work; and climate change and natural disasters. During the meeting, Aino-Kaisa Pekonen, Finnish Minister of Social Affairs and Health, suggested that universal social policies were key to building an equitable, inclusive society for all people.

The next Commission for Social Development session took place in February 2021. This focused on the role of digital technologies on social development and wellbeing of all. Ahead of the session, the commission prepared a report on how social policy could be used to promote a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable recovery after Covid-19. This said that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the SDGs, provided a “blueprint for building back better after the pandemic”. It added that social policy had a “key role to play in mitigating and overcoming the negative socioeconomic impact of the Covid-19 crisis, in particular the impact on disadvantaged and marginalised populations”. It added:

That can be achieved through a two-pronged strategy: taking fast-acting temporary measures to weather the crisis, while putting in place more comprehensive long-term policies and measures to build resilience against future risks and shocks.

Social policies need to be further strengthened to address the specific needs of people who have been hit the hardest during the crisis, including women, older persons, young people, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrant workers, people living in poverty and those in vulnerable employment who do not have social protection.

The Covid-19 crisis has also shone a spotlight on the social and economic risks of insufficient investment in social protection systems and public services. To build back better, a renewed social contract is needed to make the current socioeconomic system more inclusive, equitable, resilient and sustainable. There is an opportunity for transformational change.

The World Bank is another international body to have noted the impacts of the current Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, the bank has said the current health crisis has “put the spotlight on deep rooted systemic inequalities” within societies. This includes intensified impacts for those in some of the most marginalised groups, such as women, persons with disabilities, unemployed youth, sexual and gender minorities, the elderly, and ethnic and racial minorities. Because of this, the bank argues that inclusion should be a priority in the global recovery. It has said:

Stimulus packages for the Covid-19 recovery will need to be designed to counterbalance the widening social gaps and will have to guard against creating new forms of exclusion. The crisis is also an opportunity to focus on the rebuilding [of] more inclusive systems that allow society as a whole to be more resilient to future shocks, whether health, climate, natural disasters, or social unrest.

Building an inclusive society in the UK

UK in an international context

Before the pandemic, the UK ranked relatively highly on at least two international indexes that seek to measure inclusive societies. The World Economic Forum’s Inclusive Development Index 2018 placed the UK in 21st place among advanced economies for inclusive development. Within the G7, this placed it after Germany (12), Canada (17) and France (18), but ahead of the United States (23), Japan (24), and Italy (27). Meanwhile, the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, publishes an inclusiveness index that seeks to measure inclusivity with a “focus on policy, laws, and institutions rather than economic forces”. The 2019 edition of the index listed the UK in sixth place among countries with a high inclusiveness score, representing no change on the previous year.

Approach to policy post-pandemic

A range of international and local bodies have suggested guiding principles for how policymakers at both a national and local level should adapt policy in the wake of the pandemic. This includes both in respect of addressing pre-existing issues and those thrown up and/or exacerbated by the pandemic.

In May 2020, UN DESA published a policy brief that listed four key responses to the pandemic that could help to “turn the tide on inequality”. These were listed as:

  • Expand systems for the universal provision of quality public services.
  • Identify and empower vulnerable groups.
  • Invest in jobs and livelihoods.
  • Act through the multilateral system to respond to disparities across countries.

In a special edition of its Global Competitiveness Report published in December 2020, the WEF identified 11 emerging priorities for countries to achieve economic transformation for productive, sustainable and inclusive prosperity. One of these was on “rethink[ing] labour laws and social protection for the new economy and the new needs of the workforce”. The report listed the UK as among a number of European countries that were “relatively better prepared than other approaches to combine adequate labour protection with new safety nets models”, including those that would expand the social protection floor.

More recently, and here in the UK, in March 2021 the British Academy published more detailed reports on understanding and addressing the long-term societal impacts of Covid-19. This was in response to a Government Office for Science request for an independent review on the subject. The evidence report listed nine interconnected areas of long-term societal impact arising from the pandemic:

  • Increased importance of local communities.
  • Low and unstable levels of trust.
  • Widening geographic inequalities.
  • Exacerbated structural inequalities.
  • Worsened health outcomes and growing health inequalities.
  • Greater awareness of the importance of mental health.
  • Pressure on revenue streams across the economy.
  • Rising unemployment and changing labour markets.
  • Renewed awareness of education and skills.

In respect of the identified impact on revenue streams in particular, the report stated that the pandemic “offers an opportunity to adapt and improve the resilience and responsiveness of our economic structures”. It argued that a “different economic structure could be more inclusive, sustainable and green”.

The accompanying policy report proposed seven policy goals to shape policy over the next decade. These were proposed for consideration by policy makers, to inform how to respond to the social, economic and cultural challenges going forward. These were listed as follows:

  • Build multi-level governance structures based on empowering participation, engagement and cooperation to strengthen the capacity to identify and respond to local needs.
  • Improve the way we develop, share and communicate knowledge, data and information to enable all decision-makers to work from shared understanding of the facts.
  • Prioritise investment in digital infrastructure as a critical public service to eliminate the digital divide, improve communication and joint problem solving, and create a more equitable basis for education and employment.
  • Reimagine urban spaces to support sustainable and adaptable local businesses, amenities and lifestyles.
  • Create a more agile, responsive education and training system capable of meeting the needs of a new social and economic environment and acting as a catalyst to develop and enhance our future.
  • Strengthen and expand community-led social infrastructure that underpins the vital services and support structures needed to enhance local resilience, particularly in the most deprived areas.
  • Empower a range of actors, including business and civil society, to work together with a sense of social purpose to help drive a solid strategy for recovery across the economy and society.

The report noted that the pandemic offered an opportunity to reshape society, but that this “requires vision and for key decisionmakers to work together”. It added: “We find that in many places there is a need to start afresh, with a more systemic view, and where we should freely consider whether we might organise life differently in the future”.

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Cover image by MetsikGarden on Pixabay.