Author: Mary-Ann Stephenson
David Cameron made a speech earlier this week where he said he was ‘calling time’ on Equality Impact Assessments and that where ‘these issues had been considered’ there was now no need to do an EIA.
Cameron’s comments have not surprisingly caused real concerns among equality campaigners. His comments that equality could be left to ‘smart people in Whitehall’ were described by Ceri Goddard of the Fawcett Society as ‘staggering both for its paternalism and the implication that the judgement of a cabinet made up of 19 men and just 4 women doesn’t need a further check and balance when it comes to women’s equality.’
However at this stage it is not clear whether what he is announcing is anything new.
There is currently no specific legal obligation on public bodies to carry out Equality Impact Assessments. Indeed the Government’s guidance (see page 8) on the duty makes it very clear.
However public bodies are bound by the public sector equality duty to
‘have due regard to the need to—
(a) eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under this Act;
(b) advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it;
(c) foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it.’
In order to fulfil this duty they do need to know how their policies will affect different equality groups, this will involve collecting and analysing information and in many cases consulting with those likely to be affected in order to make sure they have properly considered the equality impact. In order to prove that they have done this if there is any legal challenge they need to write it all down. This is pretty much what an Equality Impact Assessment is.
There have been a series of legal challenge to public bodies under the public sector equality duty and in several cases the courts have required public bodies to go back and consider the equality impact of their policies because they had failed to do an Equality Impact Assessment.
So if Cameron is describing the current situation then his comments are accurate (in that EIAs are not a legal requirement) if a bit misleading since failure to carry out an EIA has been successfully challenged. It would not be the first time that a member of Government has made a speech announcing something that was already happening.
But we also need to be aware that back in May this year the Government announced it would be reviewing the whole public sector equality duty. It may be that they are planning an amendment to legislation currently going through parliament to remove the public sector equality duty. This would mean that public bodies no longer had to actively consider the impact of their policies on equality.
We all need to keep a close eye on what is happening and be prepared to respond quickly if this happens.
The Public Sector Equality duty is not perfect. Many of the Equality Impact Assessments carried out in its name have been ‘tick box’ exercises. But it can be an effective tool to hold public bodies to account and make them think about the impact of their policies on equality.