Watchdog rolls over for Treasury despite Spending Round equality fears


theweeksubThe equality watchdog has refused to investigate the Treasury’s apparent failure to meet its legal duty to consider in due depth how its spending decisions for 2015-16 will affect disabled people.

Two weeks ago, the Conservative chancellor, George Osborne, laid out how the government plans to allocate £740 billion of public expenditure in 2015-16, and how it will split £11.5 billion in cuts between government departments, including another £4 billion from disability benefits.

Among his Spending Round 2013 announcements, he told MPs there would be a new “welfare cap” – which will include spending on disability living allowance, personal independence payment and employment and support allowance (ESA) – and cuts of 10 per cent to local government spending.

He also announced new rules which will force anyone who loses their job to wait for a week – rather than the current three days – before claiming the income-related forms of jobseeker’s allowance and ESA.

In its equality impact analysis, the Treasury said the government was “aware of the risk that reducing spending may have negative consequences for groups of people with protected characteristics” and that “where possible, it has introduced measures that mitigate these impacts”.

And in the disability section of the analysis, the Treasury mentions increased spending on mental health treatment, the government’s special educational needs reforms, and money spent on improving access to the railway system, the NHS, disability employment programmes, and even supporting Paralympians.

But there is no mention of the welfare cap, the seven-day rule, or cuts of 10 per cent to local government spending, all almost certain to have a negative impact on hundreds of thousands of disabled people.

The Treasury has made it clear to Disability News Service (DNS) that it would be a serious matter if it had claimed it had met its obligations under the Equality Act, without carrying out the necessary background work.

It also made it clear that this underlying work had been completed, and that the section on disability was an accurate representation of the work it had done to assess the impact on disabled people.

A Treasury spokesman said: “Throughout the Spending Round, the government has taken care to consider the impacts of the tough decisions that have been made on groups with particular needs in society.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the body set up to “protect, enforce and promote” equality, has refused to examine the Treasury’s apparent failure to have “due regard” to its public sector equality duty (PSED) responsibilities under the Equality Act.

An EHRC spokeswoman said: “Given our limited resources, we can’t analyse every decision in the spending review.

“We feel that improving the way the government takes spending decisions – for example on cumulative impact – is the right strategic priority.”

But when DNS asked her to explain what she meant by this, she said: “That is a matter for us and our staff.”

She refused to comment further, as did her manager.

Last year, the EHRC announced that the Treasury may have failed in its legal duty to consider how some of the cuts announced in its 2010 spending review would impact on disabled people.

Also last year, the government announced a review of the PSED, which forces public bodies – such as councils and government departments – to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination when forming policies.

The government has already slashed the EHRC’s budget, and delayed the implementation of discrimination laws that were due to be introduced as part of the Equality Act.

Meanwhile, Labour confirmed this week that it backs the idea of a cap on social security spending.

A Labour spokesman said: “The government has followed our call for a cap on structural social security spending, and we will look at the details of what they put forward as we develop our own.

“However, ministers have announced a cap without any plans in the spending review to make sure that social security spending falls under the cap in the long-term.

“They are spending £21 billion more on welfare than they planned. Without a plan to tackle the root causes of welfare spending, they will continue to fail to make the system sustainable in the long-term.”

11 July 2013