Opinion: You know what, equality impact assessments can be quite useful

Rainbow - Some rights reserved by @Doug88888Equality Impact Assessments are carried out by local councils to judge how their decisions will affect some of the most marginal communities in their area. But there are calls now to scrap the process as part of the Tory mantra on scrapping red tape.

I know that some authorities have turned EIAs into the worst extremes of political correctness gone mad.

But the truth is that councils (and the Government too please) should be considering how their decisions will impact on all within their area. That’s not to say that a negative effect is an automatic bar to a proposal. But people taking those decisions should understand who will be affected, what that effect will be and what has been done to try to mitigate the adverse consequences. All too often councils and others ignore the consequences of their decisions.

Recently, my council had a decision to take on how to cope with the government’s decision to impose a cut in council tax benefit. In essence, should the council pass on the cut to recipients, forcing them to pay around £250 or more, or should the council keep the current scheme and find the money from other budgets?

The Conservative Leader and Finance cabinet members were proposing the latter. But the Leader admitted he had not bothered to talk to anyone likely to be affected and the Finance portfolio holder admitted that she “knew nothing about these people” – referring to benefit recipients.

Well why on earth had they not bothered to find out? It wouldn’t mean that they would automatically be proposing a different policy (although I hope they might). But it would mean that they would better understand the consequences of their actions.

Such analysis shouldn’t be a box ticking exercise. Little good ever came from one of those. Why should we be asking an officer sitting behind a desk to decide what the impact will be on a particular group, community or individua. Surely the council should be going out and asking residents what a decision would mean to them.

Recently there was a proposal in my town to relocate a council one stop shop to the local library building. It would save money and mean that neither service would have to suffer further cuts. All well and good. Except that many older people still pay their rent in cash on a weekly basis at the one stop shop and the library building is at the top of a short but very steep slope. So elderly residents were faced with getting a taxi a few yards up the hill. The box-ticking didn’t spot this. A proper assessment would have led the council to find a different way for tenants to pay their rent. The re-location could still have gone ahead but there would have been fewer problems as a result.

So whilst I would be happy to accept that desk-bound box-tickers could be done away with, I would want the requirement for councils to properly consider the consequences of their actions to remain an integral part of the decision making process.

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  • James Sandbach 23rd Jan '13 - 12:59pm

    EIAs are not themselves a problem or burden, the issue is how public bodies approach them – if approached as a “box ticking” exercise then that is what they become; but if approached as a genuine learning and development exercise then they are incredibly useful and help prioritise resources and focus on the most marginalised groups..

    Put another way – if you put rubbish into EIAs then you’re only going to get rubbish out

    So the tendency our own Minister to rubbish the whole EIA process as a bit of excess labour bureaucracy is rather alarming:-

  • Our party suffers from the same “disease” as others, ie that we have too many candidates and MPs who come from a University – political aide – elected politician route. When this is combined with a “comfortable” childhood, and perhaps a schooling away from the mainstream, is it surprising that such decisions as rubbishing good investigative processes as “box ticking” and (the right wing) “political correctness gone mad” are made?

    We need people grounded in regular contact with people of all backgrounds, and an understanding of what it means not to be able to afford things, having to make decisions about NOT travelling somewhere, even these days, understanding the choices between heating and eating etc.

  • @ Tim13
    Totally agree. Indeed, the phrase ‘posh boys who don’t know the price of a pint of milk’, could easily apply to most, on the front benches of BOTH sides of the House of Commons.
    I think you have hit the nail, when you infer that (in recent years), University graduates see government jobs as their first port of call, without first securing any other work/life experiences, that might bring them into smelling distance of the Hoi Polloi. Sadly, experience of real life, has become less important in a CV for the top jobs.
    Like him or loath him, the days of real politicians who have experience of real life, like Dennis Skinner, ‘the beast of Bolsover’, are over.

  • “Like him or loath him, the days of real politicians who have experience of real life, like Dennis Skinner, ‘the beast of Bolsover’, are over.”

    But only if we let it happen when we select our candidates and are too easily impressed with a nice accent and a lot of experience in using words.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 24th Jan '13 - 8:16am

    Alex highlights wonderfully how EIA’s can and should be used. It was never envisaged that they would become merely an HR function, they are meant to be outcomes orienated.

    Simply put, EIA’s are a risk assessment, and can inform those developing or enhancing processes, procedures and importantly practices what the impact will be on the product/service user, thereby improving the lives of us all. If used properly EIA’s are far from being merely a ‘tick box exercise’, but a simple way of getting things right.

    Why on earth would some wish to rid themselves of the benefits that such a simple process can bring, if they truly desire to see the development of a more equitable society?

  • James Sandbach 24th Jan '13 - 11:22am

    There seem to be 2 discussions here – the socio-economic background of parliamentary candidates, and the utility of equality impact assessments. Both matter hugely. I certainly think the equality debate in Parliament suffers due to the lack of diversity amongst Parliamentarians and has become all a bit vacuous. Voices from civil society and community movement backgrounds aren’t exactly very loud in the debate , as social and equality campaigners are increasingly put off from becoming Parliamentary candidates, Much misunderstandings about EIAs – it is inconcievable now that major planning or development decisions should be taken without reference to an Environmental Impact Assessment. So why should we do any less with understanding the impact of social policy and public services decisions?

    The reason the Tories (and perhaps some lib dems also) are so desperate to get rid of EIAs is that they don’t like what EIAs have to say about the impact of Government policies – all a bit embarrasing when you’re trying to spin a line about social mobility etc,

  • The analogy with Environmental Impact Assessments is a very good one (and they spread: a couple of years ago I was on a birding tour of North-east Poland with a high-powered guide and he got a phone call from the ministry asking him if he could do an EIA of a scheme to renew a pipeline through the Biebrza Marshes). Another good analogy is with Risk Assessment, something many businesses recognise as useful. Actually, an Equality Impact Assessment is a Risk Assessment for equality issues.

    Early procedures for these were often overcomplicated, which put people off doing them properly, but officers have learnt and they’re not just found useful in local government. Anglia Ruskin University, for example, developed an interesting and effective process for them.

    The bottom line, I’m afraid, is that many Tories dislike the idea of equality and dislike the people most likely to be disadvantaged.

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