Household benefit cap: putting politics before policy

We have commented before on Red Brick about the way this Government has downgraded equality impact assessments as part of the policy-making and legislative processes.  Under Labour they became a vital part of the process of scrutiny.

By looking at policy proposals from the perspective of defined groups in the population who may be advantaged or disadvantaged by the changes, the process requires civil servants and the Government to think more and reveal more about how the policy will work in practice.

It was the publication of the impact assessments, including the equality impact assessment, on the housing benefit changes that gave us most of the information about how many people would be adversely affected and who they might be.

Budgets and associated spending reviews have more impact on the population than almost any other set of decisions.  Red Brick noted in November 2010 the comments of Yvette Cooper that the spending review hit women harder than men and also that Theresa May had written to the Chancellor after the June 2010 Budget to register concerns about non-compliance with equality legislation.

Way back then the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) started an important piece of work (formally under s 31 of the 2006 Equality Act), which has just been published, looking at the way in which the Government conducted and made decisions during the 2010 Spending Review.  At the time of the spending review (The Equality Act 2010 did not come into force until April 2011) public authorities were under the duties imposed by the 2006 Act – they were required to pay due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment and promote equality of opportunity on the grounds of race, gender and disability.

The EHRC has no remit to comment on the Government’s policy to reduce the deficit, its role is to comment on whether it has been done fairly in line with the duty.  On the bright side, the Commission notes that a comprehensive equalities overview document was published together with the spending review; this was a big task because the review covered the totality of Government activity.  Of the nine case studies undertaken, a clean bill of health was given on six, and criticism is restricted to three – the impact on disabled people of the reduction in bus grants, the impact of the removal of educational maintenance allowance in terms of ethnicity, disability and gender, and equality screening prior to the announcement of the household benefits cap.  This latter example has led to speculation that the policy itself could be legally challenged.

Although an EIP was published later concerning the household benefit cap, the crucial point of the legislation, and good practice, is that equality considerations should be integral to making the decision, not an afterthought, so that any adverse impacts can be noted at an early stage and, at the least, mitigating measures developed.

Although some mitigations were introduced, the genesis of the HBC policy was in my view entirely political and not about good policy.  It was a crude – and successful – attempt by the Government to win the argument over welfare reform by claiming that they were just removing excess from the system.  After all, who could possible justify being given more than £26,000 in total benefits?  As a purely political decision, the equality implications had no place in it.  But the law says different and it will be intriguing to see if a challenge emerges.

Even under a Tory Government, it is better that policy is well made rather than badly made.  And it is good for us all that there is greater transparency over the impact that policies might have.  I suspect the Government will continue to seek to downgrade the importance of EIPs, but it is a process worth fighting for.

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