Since the Election the Government has substantially reduced the information it provides in announcements, consultation papers and the like concerning the impacts the proposals will have in equalities terms.
It was an important innovation by Labour to introduce a statutory requirement to publish impact assessments. Policy documents improved: ‘straight line thinking’ was challenged by the discipline of having to look at issues from the different standpoints of women, ethnic minorities, disabled people, and others. It didn’t solve the problem but equalities issues were much more likely to be properly considered as part of policy development, and policies were much more likely to be adapted to mitigate any adverse impacts identified. Impact assessments were fascinating to read because they tended to reveal downsides or unintended consequences of a policy that did not appear to have been addressed.
By any measure, this week’s consultation paper on social housing and homelessness is likely to have major implications for women, ethnic minorities and disabled people. Yet there is no impact assessment or equalities assessment published with the consultation paper. And none of the 30 consultation questions explicitly concerns equalities (although one asks if new tenants who are older people or have a long term illness or disability should be given ‘a social home for life’ – is there any answer other than ‘yes’?). The only reference to the duty is a note saying that impact assessments of the legislative changes will be published with the Localism Bill – we will see how thorough these are when they emerge – but the consultation paper has much wider consequences for practice in the sector than the contents of the Bill.
The Equality Commission is launching a formal inquiry as to whether the Treasury fulfilled its “legal duty to pay ‘due regard’ to equality and consider any disproportionate impact on protected groups when making decisions, including decisions about the budget”, pointing out that “Where decisions are found to have a disproportionate impact on a particular group protected by the legislation, public bodies must consider what actions can be taken to avoid, mitigate or justify that impact.” (see link below). The charge was made at the time of the spending review, notably by Yvette Cooper, that it would hit women much harder than men. Although officially denied, it emerged that Theresa May had written to George Osborne after the June budget to register concerns about non-compliance with the legislation.
Although the Commission will not report until next summer, they could then serve a compliance notice and go to the Courts to force the Treasury to comply. Their intervention is to be welcomed and should also serve as a warning to Communities and Local Government Ministers.