The equality watchdog is to investigate whether the Treasury has breached its legal duty to consider the impact of its spending cuts on disabled people and other groups.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been in discussions with the Treasury since June over concerns that it had failed to consider how the cuts would affect disabled people, ethnic minorities and women.
Now the commission says the Treasury has failed to provide the necessary evidence to prove it met its legal duties under the Equality Act 2006 when making the decisions contained in last month’s spending review, which included cuts to employment and support allowance and disability living allowance.
An EHRC spokeswoman told Disability News Service: “We have not got as far as we would have liked with that. That’s why we had to move from an informal to a formal [process].
“From the stuff they have given us, we have not been able to make an assessment as to whether they have complied with their duties.”
A Treasury spokesman said the decision to carry out a formal assessment was taken because it had refused to hand over “sensitive”, unpublished documents connected with the spending review.
But he was unable to explain why the Treasury refused to let the EHRC see the documents.
Even if the EHRC finds the Treasury failed in its legal duties, it will not be able to force it to change its spending decisions.
One possible option would be to ask it to carry out an equality impact assessment (EIA) of its spending decisions. If it fails to comply, the EHRC could then apply to a court for an order forcing the Treasury to carry out the EIA.
Under the public sector equality duties of the Equality Act 2006, which cover race, gender and disability, public bodies must pay “due regard” to equality and consider any “disproportionate” impact on “protected groups” when making decisions.
Where decisions – including those on spending – have a disproportionate impact on a particular group, public bodies must consider how to “avoid, mitigate or justify” that impact.
The EHRC said its assessment would consider decisions made in the spending review but not those announced by the Treasury earlier this summer in the emergency budget.
It said the assessment would “enable lessons to be learnt across government to improve outcomes for protected groups by putting fairness and transparency at the heart of difficult decisions”.
The Treasury spokesman said: “We are confident that we have fulfilled our legal obligations. We will be very cooperative and will give them any information they need.”
The EHRC is set to publish its final report on the assessment next summer.
25 November 2010