Comprehensive Spending Review ‘failed equality test’

11 May 12
The government’s decision to cap benefits might have breached public sector equality duties, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has revealed.
By Richard Johnstone | 14 May 2012

The government’s decision to cap benefits might have breached public sector equality duties, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has revealed.

However, the commission has decided to take no further action on the issue, it said in a report today.

The equality watchdog was examining the Treasury and the extent to which the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review complied with statutory provisions on equality. It was the first time the government had given access for such an assessment.

All public bodies are legally obliged to demonstrate they have fully considered the potential effects of decisions on women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people, and how these could be justified.

Today’s report, which examined decision-making throughout the spending review process, commended ministers for their ‘serious’ efforts to meet their obligations.

In six of the nine policy case studies looked at, the commission concluded that the Treasury acted in accordance with equality duties. These areas included the removal of Child Benefit from households including a higher-rate taxpayer, removing the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance from claimants in residential care homes, and the localisation and 10% reduction in Council Tax Benefit expenditure.

However, in three cases, the commission says was unable to establish whether the decisions were in full accord with the duties.

There was ‘no evidence’ of an equality appraisal being undertaken by Treasury ministers ahead of the announcement of the household benefits cap.

The government intends that this will, from next year, ensure the income received by a family claiming out-of-work benefits does not exceed the average household earnings of people in employment, around £500 a week.

There was also no reference to ethnicity, disability or gender impacts in documents given to Treasury ministers on scrapping the Education Maintenance Allowance and replacing it with a smaller student support fund.

The department was also unable to show that the impact on disabled people was considered when cuts to the Bus Service Operators Grant, which subsidises some services, were agreed.

When the commission decides a public body has not complied with equality duties, it has the power to issue a notice requiring them to do so, or can reach an agreement for further action.

However, the watchdog said it ‘would be disproportionate to take further formal action in these three specific decisions’ in this case.

It has instead recommended that there be ‘greater transparency’ of the equality assessments of future reviews. Whitehall should also develop a common model to better predict the likely equality affect of a policy, it concluded.

Commission chair Trevor Phillips said that the ‘unprecedented exercise’ would ‘go a long way to making sure that all parts of government are better able to meet their legal obligations’.

He added: ‘The key point for the commission's work is not to judge the past, but to transform the future. I am particularly pleased that the government has indicated that it will work with us over the next few years to make sure that the equality impact of policy is fully understood and taken into account before decisions are made. That, we think, will lead to more targeted spending, more effective use of public money and, above all, greater fairness all round.’

The race, disability and gender equality duties were replaced by the public sector equality duty in England, Scotland and Wales on April 5 2011.


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