The information commissioner has told the Treasury it can continue to hide information that would show how measures in a controversial spring budget were predicted to affect disabled people and other groups protected by the Equality Act.
Disability News Service (DNS) has been trying for the last year to persuade the Treasury to release assessments it made of the equality impact of the measures in last year’s much-criticised spring statement.
DNS also asked to see an analysis of the overall impact of the spring statement on lower-, middle- and higher-income households.
But the Treasury 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 has now ruled – in a decision notice – 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.
The DNS request was made after the spring statement, but the Treasury argued that even then it should not have to release the information because policy development can continue after budgets have taken place, particularly in 2022 with the cost-of-living crisis.
The Treasury admitted to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that its equality impact assessments often present “extremely frank and blunt assessments of the likely impact of policies on protected groups”.
And it told ICO there was “a strong public interest in protecting information where release would be likely to have a detrimental impact on the ongoing development of policy” and would likely have “a ‘chilling effect’ on the future development of evidence to support policy making”.
Edwards told DNS in his decision notice that he “does not accept that information being complex means that the public would not understand it”.
And he said there was “a significant public interest in the disclosure of information as it would aid the public’s understanding of policy considerations in these areas”, would “make the policy making process more transparent”, and would provide stakeholders with “an insight into the analysis of the issues in question which they could use to engage with the government”.
But he said the Treasury analysis “would have attracted significant interest” and “resulted in particular attention and comment” which “would have had a direct and detrimental impact on the policy development process”.
He concluded that the Treasury should be allowed to keep the information secret because of the “significant, and ultimately compelling, weight that he considers should be given to the safe space arguments” and the “smaller but still substantial weight that he thinks should be attached to the chilling effect arguments”.
His decision suggests that the Treasury will be able to continue keeping secret the assessments it makes of how future budgets and spring statements will affect disabled people and other groups.
Disabled people had reacted with disbelief in March 2022 to the “cruel” decision of the then chancellor Rishi Sunak (pictured) 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 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 Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) refused this week to comment on the ICO decision or to criticise the Treasury’s refusal to release the equality assessment information from last year’s spring statement.
Instead, an EHRC spokesperson pointed to a letter the commission had written to equalities minister Kemi Badenoch in December 2021, in which it pointed out that it was “good practice for public bodies to produce Equality Impact Assessments to show how they have fulfilled their obligations” under the Equality Act’s public sector equality duty.
The letter said government departments and public bodies should “publish their equality assessments when possible to ensure transparency, accountability and assurance to interested parties”.
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