Treasury criticised by watchdog over equality failings


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, the equality watchdog has concluded.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) spent 18 months – twice as long as originally intended – assessing in detail how the Treasury reached some of the most controversial spending decisions in the October 2010 spending review.

The assessment report looks at whether Treasury ministers and civil servants met their legal obligations – under public sector equality duties – to consider fully the impact of decisions to cut benefits, government subsidies and services on disabled people, ethnic minorities and women.

Six of those decisions were found to comply with the law, including proposals to limit the contributory form of employment and support allowance to one year, cut spending on legal aid, and withdraw the mobility component of disability living allowance (DLA) from people in residential homes (a plan later scrapped following pressure from disabled campaigners).

But the report found that three decisions could have breached equality duties – although the EHRC was not able to say for sure, because of a lack of evidence – including the move to cut subsidies for bus companies and scrap the education maintenance allowance.

Although the report praises ministers and officials for “serious” efforts to meet their legal obligations, it also contains a string of explicit and implicit criticisms of the Treasury.

It is critical of the failure to consult in advance with disabled people about the mobility component cut – particularly the failure to discover exactly how care home residents use their DLA.

It also reveals that Treasury ministers were briefed that cuts to bus subsidies would not disproportionately affect disabled people, even though the Department for Transport had made it clear that they would.

The assessment report also stresses that information about the “potential disproportionate impact” of the legal aid cuts on disabled people, women and ethnic minorities was in front of the “Quad” – the prime minister, deputy prime minister, Treasury chief secretary and chancellor – when they approved the decision.

The EHRC secured “unprecedented” access to Treasury documents for the review, under conditions of strict secrecy.

Mike Smith, an EHRC commissioner and chair of the commission’s disability committee, said the review was “one of the most exhaustive” the EHRC had ever carried out.

He said the report would change the way the government and other public bodies make spending decisions in the future, and could prove hugely influential in helping disabled people and their organisations hold them to account.

Smith said: “The report shows that actively involving disabled people in decision-making processes means you are more likely to make the right decision in the first place.”

The report does make it clear that as long as politicians and officials consider the equality impact of their decisions and the steps they could take to “mitigate” that impact, they can then go ahead and make those decisions.

But Smith said: “This report was not about whether these measures were discriminatory. It was about whether they complied with the law.

“The really positive thing is that the Treasury, the most influential government department, has committed to doing things better in the future.”

A Treasury spokeswoman said: “The Treasury will consider the good practice recommendations carefully and respond in due course.”

She added: “The government takes equalities incredibly seriously and at the spending review exceeded its legal duties.

“We are pleased that the EHRC says that the government ‘consciously and actively sought to fulfil the duties’ on equalities in the spending review.”

16 May 2012

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