It’s easy to lose count of the number of the times the Government has ‘declared war on red tape’. David Cameron had another go yesterday in his speech to the CBI which seemed to have been written by a special computer programme which stitches Churchillian clichés together into sentences – ‘in the global race, you are quick or you are dead’ – that sort of thing. LOL.
Cameron poured scorn all around:
‘Consultations, impact assessments, audits, reviews, stakeholder management, securing professional buy-in, complying with EU procurement rules, assessing sector feedback … this is not how we became one of the most powerful, prosperous nations on Earth. It’s not how you get things done. As someone once said, if Christopher Columbus had an advisory committee he would probably still be stuck in the dock. So I am determined to change this.’
Mr Cameron needs to attend one of Michael Gove’s history lessons. Not only did Columbus have many advisors, it took him 5 years to convince his stakeholders – the Spanish and Portuguese Courts – to fund the project. It sounds as contorted as a European procurement exercise. He had to deal with those who still believed he would sail off the edge of the earth – there’s a real health and safety issue. He did many studies which today might be called impact assessments and was subject to several audits of his plans to justify the proposed cost. An equality impact assessment might have concluded it would be best to stay at home.
But I digress. Cameron had many targets – cutting down on judicial review caught the media attention this morning – but one Labour innovation particularly annoys him: ‘So I can tell you today, we are calling time on equality impact assessments.’ He said ‘these things’ should be left to ‘smart people in Whitehall’ to consider when making policy instead of ‘churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense.’
Anyone who has watched the Whitehall policy-making and legislative process knows how prone to error and miscalculation it is. The clever people in Whitehall are not always very knowledgeable about the real world and, if I’m frank, tend to have middle class prejudices about poor people. The really really clever people – like the civil servants who worked on the stunningly complex reform of council housing finance – spend a lot of time talking to outside experts and stakeholders, constantly informing and revising the policy they are developing, trying to get it right first time and trying to identify in advance the potential unintended consequences.
Impact assessments have become an integral part of the policy-making process. They are often written by people with different forms of expertise and offer a structured way of looking at policy from a range of different angles. It’s not just that they challenge discrimination, although they do, it’s that they challenge ‘straight line thinking’. Some of the most insightful things written about new legislation have been in the impact assessments. They have genuinely made a difference to the quality of the work done in Whitehall. Nor do they need to slow things down as Cameron suggests. They are built into the timetable and should be done alongside the other policy development work. Indeed, by predicting possibly discriminatory outcomes and adverse reactions they can speed up the process.
In the world that Cameron wants to go back to no-one used to consider how proposals would specifically affect women or minority groups or disabled people or LGBT communities, and so no-one was charged with developing mitigating or countervailing measures if the impact was adverse. Cameron is hubris personified: he and his chums in the elite know what is best and people with different views should stop being irritating. Sir Humphrey would approve.
As Yvette Cooper commented: ‘This is even more proof of David Cameron’s personal blind spot on women and his lack of concern about the unfair impact of his policies. The idea we can leave equality to the ‘judgement’ of this prime minister and his cabinet with so few women is just a joke.’