In his speech to the CBI on Monday, David Cameron made an important admission: the coalition has been ineffective in cutting the red tape that is limiting economic growth. And what has been preventing the government from getting rid of costly, bureaucratic regulation? Er…government bureaucracy.
“You know the story” he said. “The Minister stands on a platform like this and announces a plan. Then that plan goes through a three month consultation period. There are impact assessments along the way and probably some judicial reviews to clog things up further. By the time the machinery of government has finally wheezed into action, the moment’s probably passed.”
Too right. We're all growing tired of hearing politicians make speeches that lead to nothing. So we should be thankful that, finally, the Prime Minister has declared a state of emergency, putting the British economy on a war footing. This has enabled him to announce the end of one of the most expensive and time-consuming pieces of bureaucracy recently passed into law: the requirement for every government department, every local authority, NHS trust, education, police or fire authority, and indeed every other public body, to carry out regular and repeated Equality Impact Assessments (EqIAs).
Let us not dwell on the uncomfortable fact that this government supported the 2010 Equalities Act, giving rise to this duty; we must be thankful that Mr Cameron has now seen the light. As he explained on Monday: “in government, we have taken the letter of this law and gone way beyond it, with Equality Impact Assessments for every decision we make.” He stressed his commitment to equal treatment but explained, very reasonably, that “caring about these things does not have to mean churning out reams of bureaucratic nonsense.
Hence the government is ending the duty to carry out EqIAs, and will rely instead on the intelligence of civil servants, who have equality in mind when making policy. In other words, we all know now what equality means, so we needn't go on spending time and money ticking boxes to prove it. This outbreak of common sense will lift a huge burden from the whole of the UK's public sector.
As the law stands at present, EqIAs are mandatory at the development and implementation stages of all public sector policies and practices. According to government guidance, their purpose is to attempt an assessment of the likely or actual impact of a policy or service on people in terms of their “protected characteristics” as listed in the 2010 Act: race, gender, gender reassignment, sexual orientation, disability, religion, age or pregnancy or maternity.
As soon as a publicly-funded organisation decides to develop a proposal for an area of service delivery, it must first establish whether the proposal is relevant to equality. Given the very wide definition of equality in the 2010 Act, almost any policy is affected. A full impact assessment must then take place, with a complete paper trail. It doesn't end there. Policies must also be reviewed at regular intervals, to ensure that they continue to promote equality.
In the NHS, for example, all current policies, processes and functions have to be continuously monitored and reviewed. These assessments relate not only to patients and clinical matters but also to staff procedures; dozens are thus being produced by every hospital trust every year. Does Rotherham Hospital's bomb threat emergency evacuation procedure make provision for members of staff with mobility difficulties? Will NHS Leeds' cardiac rehabilitation project take account of differential impacts on black and minority ethnic patients? Has Whipps Cross hospital considered sexual orientation when devising its prescription protocols? Hundreds of forms are completed, with every box ticked – but does anyone really believe patients are getting better treatment as a result? The removal of this duty will undoubtedly enable the NHS to make savings or to reallocate staff to more productive activities.
Likewise, local councils should see significant savings through the ability to cut staff currently engaged in producing these reports. Some local authorities have been more zealous than others in conducting the assessments: for example, both Trafford and North Somerset currently publish 40 completed EqIAs, whereas Portsmouth City Council has already carried out more than 500. Let us hope that David Cameron's announcement will provide a direct benefit to the residents of Portsmouth, by way of a reduction in their council tax.
Whitehall departments should also be able to make a few more redundancies: to date, the DWP has carried out 34 EqIAs, 20 have been produced at Education, and the Department of Business Investment and Skills has excelled itself with 720. In a reductio ad absurdam that perfectly illustrates the surreal nature of this piece of bureaucracy, BIS was responsible for carrying out an Equalities Impact Assessment into the impact of the Equalities Act.
Its conclusion? That the Act would cost somewhere between £458 million and £817 million to implement, but that these costs would be outweighed by the benefits of the legislation, for example by improving the performance of the courts and increasing “the efficient operation of business and markets as a result of a reduction in discrimination.” Replying to the question “Will the proposal have a significant effect on competition?”, the assessment states baldly: “No”.
Well, it seems that government advisers have since done some number-crunching and found that these optimistic assumptions were wide of the mark. Perhaps, in a “peacetime” economy, the equalities industry would have continued to boom, despite its cost to the public purse. Now we are at war, the expense can no longer be justified. The significance of the Prime Minister's announcement should not be underestimated. It may also presage an entirely new approach to equality regulation; if we can now accept that equality is built into UK policy-making, large swathes of bureaucracy can be dismantled and a whole raft of quangos and NGOs could be closed down.
I won't be shedding any tears as the sun goes down on Equality Impact Assessments. But I have just one last question for the Prime Minister: will he be asking BIS to carry out an assessment into the impact of their abolition?