Campaigners have told the information commissioner of their “deep concern” over his decision to allow the Treasury to hide information that would show how last year’s budget was set to impact disabled people and other equality groups.
Women’s Budget Group, Runnymede Trust* and Disability Rights UK have today (Thursday) sent a joint letter (PDF) about this decision to both the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the Treasury.
The letter expresses their “disappointment and profound concern” at the ICO ruling in March (PDF) which concluded that the government did not need to publish an equality impact assessment (EIA) of last year’s spring budget.
Disability News Service (DNS) had asked the Treasury (pictured) last year to release the EIA through a freedom of information request.
But this week’s letter says the ICO ruling has prevented an “effective evaluation” of whether the Treasury fulfilled its obligation under the public sector equality duty to have “due regard” to equality.
And they say the ruling means the information commissioner is failing in his responsibility “to promote transparency in matters of public interest”.
They say that both recent and historical changes to taxes and social security have “disproportionately” affected the “most discriminated against communities in the UK”.
They say that disabled single parents, most of whom are women, were the group worst hit by austerity measures between 2010 and 2021, losing 21 per cent of their income through changes to taxes and benefits, and rising to 32 per cent if they had a disabled child.
Black and minority ethnic women have experienced a £1,040 decrease in benefits over the past decade, they say, while some groups of women, particularly lower income, Black and minority ethnic, and disabled women, “face multiple disadvantages”.
The letter adds: “…transparency and access to government information during and after the policy-making process are vital to ensure that we are able to support the government in formulating policies that benefit society as a whole and align with the Equality Act 2010.”
It calls on the Treasury to carry out and publish a “meaningful cumulative impact assessment” of every budget and spending review.
The trio of equality groups say it is “disappointing to see the Information Commissioner’s Office make a decision that contradicts the principles of upholding information rights and promoting openness for the public interest, thus hindering civil society’s ability to support and hold the government accountable”, and they call on ICO to reconsider its decision.
DNS has been trying for more than a year to persuade the Treasury to release the assessment it made of the equality impact of the measures in last year’s much-criticised spring statement.
But the Treasury has refused to release the information, telling DNS it would not be in the public interest to release analysis that “could be misleading for a general audience”.
It also claimed that releasing the analysis would have a “chilling effect” on how it prepared evidence to support ministers as they draw up policies, which would “lead to poorer decision making”.
DNS lodged a complaint about the Treasury’s decision with the Information Commissioner’s Office.
But information commissioner John Edwards ruled that the Treasury was not acting unlawfully and is entitled to keep its analysis secret.
He said the Treasury was allowed to rely on section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act, an exemption clause that lets public bodies refuse to release information if it is linked to forming or developing government policy.
Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “All the evidence points to disabled people being disproportionately affected by poverty and inequality.
“Half the people in poverty are either disabled people or people who have a disabled person in their household.
“Disabled people are hit hard by cuts to public services, low benefit rates and the rising costs of food, energy and housing.
“It is absolutely vital that the Treasury understands the impact of its actions and is open and transparent about how their policies affect disabled people.”
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson, director of Women’s Budget Group, said: “Transparency is crucial in formulating policies that benefit society as a whole and comply with the Equality Act 2010.
“It is essential that the Treasury provides stakeholders with insight into the analysis of policy issues, for us to engage effectively with the government.
“The information commissioner’s reasons just don’t stack up.
“How can the Treasury be held to account for complying with equalities law if they won’t show their workings?”
Disabled people reacted with disbelief in March 2022 to the “cruel” decision of the then chancellor Rishi Sunak to all-but-ignore those who rely on benefits in the spring statement, even as the Office for Budget Responsibility was warning that the real value of benefits was set to fall by five per cent in 2022-23.
There was no mention in his speech of disabled people and how many of them were struggling to survive, and no attempt to increase benefits to match the sharply rising rate of inflation.
It was not until late May 2022 that Sunak was forced to announce a “sticking plaster” injection of £15 billion in grants and other funding in an attempt to ease the cost-of-living crisis.
The Treasury had not commented on the letter by noon today (Thursday).
An ICO spokesperson said: “The decision notice in this case, published on our website, sets out our position.
“If a requestor disagrees with a decision we have reached in their FOI case, the appropriate way to challenge it is by appeal to the Information Rights Tribunal.”
*Women’s Budget Group is a feminist think tank and Runnymede Trust is an independent race equality think tank
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