Equalities can’t be an afterthought when spending decisions are made

15th May, 2012 10:23 am

Yesterday’s report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) shows serious shortcomings in the Government’s approach to meeting its responsibility to assess the impact of its policies on equality. It highlights the Government’s failure to consider equalities as a central issue for public spending, rather than an afterthought.

The Equality Act set out specific duties on all public sector bodies to assess the different impacts of their policies by gender, disability status and ethnicity. As figures emerged that around 70% of the additional burden from tax credit changes, benefit cuts, and changes to public sector pensions in the Spending Review and Emergency Budget would fall on women, doubts emerged about whether this duty was being taken seriously. When the Fawcett Society issued a legal challenge under the Act, the Judge recommended that the EHRC assess the extent of Government compliance. Yesterday’s report is the long-awaited result of that process.

It seems Ministers were in such a rush to make cuts that decisions were being taken without stopping to make sure their impact was being properly analysed. While in six of the nine areas the Commission examined in detail, they believe that the basic requirements of the duty were met, they point out that the Government often cited ‘insufficient data’ as a reason for not examining the gender impacts of cuts – an assertion challenged by the Institute for Fiscal Studies among others.  The Home Office – the Minister for Equality’s own department – is particularly singled out for criticism as providing  “no data or analysis  on the potential impact of the Home Office’s measures on race, gender or disability equality, to take into consideration when deciding the Home Office’s settlement”. And in three key areas, the introduction of the household benefit cap, the impact on cuts to the Bus Service Operators Grant, and the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the Commission were “unable to establish whether or not the decisions were in full accord with the requirements of the duty.” The gender impact of the Household Benefit Cap was listed as ‘unknown’, despite the fact that subsequent analysis revealed that 60% of those affected would be single women, and just 3% single men.  The potential impact on people with disabilities of cuts to the bus transport budget was not included in advice to Ministers, and perhaps hardest to believe, there was no reference to ethnicity, disability or gender in information provided to HM Treasury ministers about the cuts to EMA.

But maybe most damning is the fact that no assessment was being made of the cumulative impact of the cuts on any of these groups. As the report states: “As no department or body has clear responsibility for working out the cumulative equality impact of separate departmental measures within a Spending Review then this analysis does not happen in any meaningful or comprehensive way. This means that no one has any clear idea as to how these measures will work together and what their combined impact on protected groups might be.”

Once again we only need to look at the hugely disproportionate impact on women of the cuts to see the results of this. House of Commons Library research has shown that, of nearly £15 billion in tax, benefit and pension changes announced in the Emergency Budget, Spending Review, 2011 and 2012 Budgets and the 2011 Autumn Statement, £11,104 billion, or 74% is being shouldered by women.

Without an assessment of the cumulative impact of cuts , there’s no way the Government can set out a strategy as to what they might want to achieve in terms of equality.  This is especially worrying when we consider the evidence that shows that we don’t just need to look at the impact on equality groups because of basic principles of fairness, but because we know that addressing persistent inequalities has to be a key part of any route back to economic prosperity. As the Resolution Foundation have shown, a million women are missing from the UK workforce because of our continued failure to get a better balance between working and childcare. The  disproportionate impact of youth unemployment on black and minority ethnic groups isn’t just an injustice, it’s a huge waste of talent. And while George Osborne talks about a further £10bn cuts to welfare, this misses the point that the most sustainable route to cutting the costs of benefits to disabled people would be breaking down barriers to their employment rather than further impoverishing those who cannot work.

Putting equalities centre stage when thinking about economic policy is fundamental, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because highlighting where there’s failure to exploit people’s potential is key to addressing the long term challenges we face in returning to economic growth. But there’s little sign on the evidence of this report that the Government’s made the connection.

Kate Green MP is the Shadow Minister for Equalities – this is the first in a  series of posts in the coming weeks.

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