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Economy: Spending Cuts

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 6 October 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they have complied with the legal requirement to assess the impact of spending cuts on women, disabled people and ethnic minorities.

My Lords, all government departments will ensure that they take account of the impact of reductions in their spending on women, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities, in line with their legal obligations. For areas for which the Treasury has direct responsibility, work is under way to ensure that any relevant impacts are considered before decisions are taken. The Treasury will also be mindful of the overall impact on equalities of the high-level decisions that will be taken in the spending review.

My Lords, it is very welcome news that the Treasury and other departments will ensure that an assessment of the impact on these groups is made before the CSR, but what evidence is there that an assessment took place before the emergency Budget on 22 June? A lot of vulnerable people, including many women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people, have been hit very hard by the decisions that were taken on that date.

My Lords, as I am sure the noble Baroness is aware, there is a regulator, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in this area. If it has any doubts about whether government departments have followed their duties under the relevant legislation, it is up to it to take appropriate action.

Will the Government require public bodies, including local authorities, to conduct an impact assessment as they develop their policies over the next few months, which will be quite difficult for them? What are the Government doing to make sure that that happens? Are they producing guidance for public bodies to make sure that they follow the law absolutely strictly and do not take any actions which are disproportionate? If so, it would be helpful if the Minister could put that guidance in the Library of both Houses.

My Lords, I can assure the House that the Government Equalities Office publishes guidance to departments. It is up to departments how they carry out the legal responsibilities under the three relevant Acts. Equality impact assessments are one way in which this can be done. I do not know whether the guidance published by the Government Equalities Office is in the public domain.

My Lords, those of us who worked hard to get the Equality Act on to the statute book will especially welcome the Minister’s assurances about compliance with the obligations in that Act. Did I understand the Minister to be encouraging the Equality and Human Rights Commission to consider using legal powers? I hope not, because does not the Minister agree that it is very important that after 20 October the Government can demonstrate to the public, with evidence, that they have fully complied with their obligations?

I thank my noble friend for that question, which allows me to clarify that the Equality Act 2010 does not apply to decisions in the spending review, because the relevant provisions in this area are not expected to take effect until 2011. For the avoidance of doubt, the Acts which impact now are the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. On the question of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is the regulator in this area, like all sensitive regulators it has a range of ways of dealing with situations, from private conversations to seek clarification through to the more formal routes of issuing compliance notices and, ultimately, legal proceedings. I am of course not encouraging or discouraging the commission from doing anything that it believes appropriate, but I do not anticipate that anything such as compliance notices or legal proceedings should be necessary.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that the Government will put in place procedures for keeping the impact of the measures that are announced in the comprehensive spending review under ongoing review, so that the continuing impact on women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities can be assessed and remedial action taken, if necessary?

Government departments will of course fully comply with their obligations, which are to have due regard of the impact of their policies and of the way in which they deliver their services. That implies an ongoing responsibility.

My Lords, there seems to be little point in assessing the value and impact of the cuts if the cuts have not been made. Will the Government make a further announcement after the cuts, so that the impact can be accurately assessed?

I assure noble Lords that the impact will be taken fully into account in accordance with the statutory provisions. The assurance is there that government departments will indeed have made the assessment fully by the time that any spending proposals come forward, whether in the spending review or in any other context.

My Lords, in declaring an interest as a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, can the Minister make an announcement confirming that although there is only a legal obligation to do this for race, disability and gender—including gender reassignment—it is good practice in policy-making to include age, sexual orientation and religion or belief when reviewing any measures?

My Lords, this gives me an opportunity to restate the Government’s overall commitment to fairness in the whole construction of the overall Budget framework and the spending review. That was made very clear by my right honourable friend the Chancellor at the time of the Budget. Fairness right across all sections of society is at the heart of the policy making of this Government.