Cameron’s EIA attack spells ‘danger’ for equality

Leading disability rights figures have warned that key parts of the country’s equality legislation are under threat from the government, after the prime minister announced that he was “calling time on equality impact assessments”.

In a speech to business leaders at the CBI’s annual conference this week, David Cameron said the country was “in the economic equivalent of war”, and needed the government to be “tough”, “radical” and “fast”.

He blamed judicial reviews, public consultations and equality impact assessments (EIAs) for slowing the pace of government reforms, and pledged to reduce the length of public consultations on new policies, and make it harder to bring judicial reviews.

But he also said he was “calling time” on EIAs and “all this extra tick-box stuff”, and added: “That way, policy-makers are free to use their judgement and do the right thing to meet the equalities duty rather than wasting their own time and taxpayers’ money.”

His comments alarmed leading disabled campaigners, who fear they mark the latest stage in a coalition assault on the equality agenda and could even signal its intention to scrap the crucial public sector equality duty (PSED).

The government has already slashed the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s budget, delayed the implementation of discrimination laws that were due to be introduced as part of the Equality Act, and ordered a review of the PSED.

The PSED forces public bodies – such as councils and government departments – to have “due regard” to the need to eliminate discrimination when forming policies. EIAs are used by these public bodies to show that they have paid due regard to the impact on disabled people and other minority groups.

Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), said Cameron’s comments on EIAs were “very, very dangerous”.

He said: “It isn’t human rights policies that are holding back the economy. It wasn’t the Equality Act that led to the bankers squandering money in some casino.

“We fought for years to get the EIA because it enables you to look at the effects of policies before they start happening to people.”

Sir Bert said he believed that the PSED, the Equality Act and the whole equality agenda were “under threat”, and added: “If Cameron is saying, ‘we will not assess our policies to see whether they are discriminatory,’ is he now saying, ‘we don’t care whether they are discriminatory’?”

Marie Pye, the lead on equality for London Councils (LC) and a Labour councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest, said there was “no doubt at all” that the attack on EIAs meant the equality duty itself was under threat.

Pye, who led the DRC’s work on the disability equality duty, which preceded the PSED, said that scrapping the equality duty would mean public bodies would no longer have to think about the impact on disabled people when considering a major new policy.

She said the PSED was even more crucial at a time when disability and housing benefits, social care, and affordable and accessible housing were all being cut.

She said: “It is even more important that you think about disabled people when you are making cuts. It is about avoiding unintended consequences.”

And she said LC had seen “loads of examples” of local authorities that had produced “really good changes” to policies as a result of carrying out an EIA.

Mike Smith, who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s disability committee, said: “It seems as though the current administration doesn’t feel as if equality is an important outcome.”

He said there were occasions when EIAs were used by public bodies as “box-ticking exercises”, but he added: “There are many good examples where EIAs have been shown to make demonstrably better decisions that save public money and produce better outcomes.

“There is certainly scope for improvement but scrapping them without a good alternative is not the right decision.”

He said the PSED was “a very important and useful tool. I sincerely hope that the review will be looking at how to make it work better, not whether it should exist.”

Asked if the prime minister’s comments suggested the government would scrap the PSED, a Government Equalities Office spokeswoman said: “No, not at all. We said we would review it. It is just a review to see how it is working and not necessarily an indication that we are going to get rid of it.”

22 November 2012

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

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Tens of thousands lose their ESA as welfare reforms begin to bite

Tens of thousands of disabled people have lost all of their out-of-work disability benefits this week, thanks to new rules brought in by the government through its controversial Welfare Reform Act.

The act introduced a new one-year time limit on claiming the contributory form of employment and support allowance (ESA) for those disabled people expected to move gradually towards work.

The new time limit was introduced retrospectively, which meant that claimants began to have their ESA removed on 30 April, even though the act only became law two months ago.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed that it expects 40,000 people from this work-related activity group (WRAG) to lose all of their ESA this week, with a further 60,000 losing their contributory ESA but becoming eligible for at least some ESA on the grounds of low income.

Those disabled people with higher support needs, who have been placed in the ESA support group, are not affected by the time limit.

The one-year limit was one of the most controversial aspects of the act, with the disabled peer Lord [Colin] Low telling the government earlier this year that the measure would be “not only unfair but downright cruel”.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) said this week that the time limit would increase the number of disabled people living in poverty, with some losing more than £90 a week.

Neil Coyle, DR UK’s director of policy and campaigns, said the new measure would only penalise disabled people who have worked in the past, as only those who have made national insurance contributions qualify for contributory ESA.

He called on the government to monitor the impact of the new time limit closely.

In its own equality impact assessment (EIA) of the measure last October, DWP conceded that the policy would affect about 700,000 people by 2015-16, with about 280,000 of them losing all of their ESA.

DWP estimates suggest that disabled people hitting the one-year time limit will lose an average £32 per week for men, and £43 for women.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The welfare system must support those with the most need.

“ESA for people who could be expected to get back into work was never intended to be a long-term benefit and the time limit of one year strikes the best balance between recognising that some people need extra help to enter the workplace and that the taxpayer cannot afford to support people indefinitely who could return to employment.”

She added: “Although a person’s ESA has ended they may be entitled to other help such as housing benefit, council tax benefit or working tax credits.”

She said DWP would monitor the impact of the time limit through its “frontline operation” and by “making sure people know what other benefits may be available to them”.

She added: “In terms of helping people, even if you are not eligible for benefit you can continue to claim national insurance credits and be eligible for all the support to help you get closer to the labour market, such as the Work Programme.”

She said this was another way for DWP to “stay in touch” with former claimants.

For more information on ESA, visit the government’s benefits adviser online service.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

Questions raised over council’s equality impact refusal

A local authority has refused to explain why it will not release an assessment of how its savage spending cuts will affect disabled people and other minority groups.

Members of Lambeth council pushed through a package of spending cuts last month, including a decision not to renew annual contracts worth £118,000 with People First Lambeth (PFL).

Without the funding, PFL – one of the country’s leading self-advocacy organisations – said it would be forced to close.

But the council has refused to provide Disability News Service with a copy of the equality impact assessment (EIA) it claims it carried out on its proposed cuts to adult social care services – including PFL’s funding – which were agreed by the council on 23 February.

A Lambeth council spokesman said: “We are satisfied that we have fulfilled our EIA requirements. An EIA was carried out as part of the overall savings proposals for Adults and Community Services.”

He said the assessment – a legal requirement which obliges public bodies such as councils to assess the impact of policies on disabled people and other groups – was “in the process of undergoing some reviews but it will be available for public inspection very shortly”.

But one leading lawyer said the council’s failure to provide the EIA could open it up to a judicial review.

Louise Whitfield, a judicial review expert with solicitors Pierce Glynn, who specialises in public sector equality duties, said: “If the final decision has been taken, the EIA that was considered when that decision was taken should have been complete so it could inform that decision properly, and it also should be in the public domain.”

She added: “It seems very odd to me to suggest that they should not publish any of it or they are finishing it off. How can they finish something that should have been in front of decision-makers?”

Whitfield, who represented the charity that last month succeeded in a judicial review of London Councils’ decision to slash spending on its grants programme, said she believed Lambeth council’s apparent failure to complete and publish an EIA could provide grounds for a judicial review.

Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, added: “We have concerns about the devastating impact on equality that public sector cuts are going to have, including those local government cuts that are passing on the impact of central government cuts.

“We would want to be sure that all public authorities were properly assessing the impact on equality of any cuts… and being transparent in how they are doing that.”

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com