Oh dear, the Treasury is mired in another controversy about equality after the Guardian
published a letter which Theresa May sent to George Osborne before the Budget. In it, she warned that
the government could face legal action if it is unable to show that its decisions were made with a consideration to "existing race, disability and gender equality duties." As she puts
"If there are no processes in place to show that equality issues have been taken into account in relate to particular decisions, there is a real risk of successful legal challenge by,
for instance, recipients of public services, Trade Unions or other groups affected by these decisions."
In highlighting this, May was only doing her job – but she has also drawn attention to how the last government wired the legislative process so it could explode in this
government’s face. After all, the possibility of legal action is enshrined within Harriet Harman’s Equality Act, which is explained in this document. Paragraph 32 begins:
"This section ensures that individuals have no recourse to private law because of a failure by a public body to comply with the duty imposed by section 1. This means that individuals are
not able to claim damages for breach of statutory duty for a breach of this duty. However, this section does not prevent an individual from bringing judicial review proceedings against a public
body which is covered by the duty, if he or she believes the public body has not considered socio-economic disadvantage when taking decisions of a strategic nature."
In other words, if anyone can argue that the government’s measures might hit, say, women disproportionately, then they can put them up for judicial review. The potential for this to
cause all kinds of trouble for the coalition is immense. Given that women are more heavily represented in the public sector than men, then – as the Budget proved – almost any effort to cut spending could be seen as placing a disproportionate burden upon them.
And how will IDS’s important benefit reforms fare if they are being implemented at the same time as other benefit changes are being challenged? How about Michael Gove’s schools reforms?
Convenient for Labour that this wasn’t a concern when Brown axed the 10p tax rate for blunt political gain. Now it is, they know that the Tories will be reluctant to quash anything marked equality.
This is not to dismiss the equality agenda out of hand. There are still serious issues which need to be resolved, not least the dispiritingly large pay gap between men and women. But the minefield of legislation that the last government left for the coalition looks
set merely to befuddle the issue, and to impede the progress of wider reform. Little wonder why Matthew Parris called for a blanket repeal of Labour legislation in an article for the Spectator manifesto.