You can’t act on what you don’t know (until too late)

Yesterday’s hardcopy of the Guardian reports that the Government is only planning to release the full Equality Impact Assessment for its policy of cutting Housing Benefit on the day that the legislative changes are brought forward. Critics have already argued that the policy is being rushed in so it is unlikely that the impact has been fully analysed. If it is true that the impact assessment is not going to be available until so late in the day then it means that even the partial picture the government has assembled is not, in practical terms, available to assist effective scrutiny. Impact assessment should start as early as possible in the policy making process. Earlier stages of the Impact Assessment process for the Housing Benefit changes were acknowledge by the Department for Work and Pensions to be incomplete. Which makes data that emerge later in the process even more significant.

It seems highly likely that this policy change will impact upon different population groups in significantly different ways. The online version of the Guardian piece provides the following example of the impact of placing a ceiling on weekly housing benefit: “Hackney says that of the 32 claimants living in five-bedroom properties who would lose £1,200 a month, “94% (31) are from the [orthodox] Charedi Jewish community”.

Clearly that is only one example, and policy shouldn’t be made or altered on the basis of such single examples, but it no doubt gives reason to suspect that a full (and objective) Equality Impact Assessment would have some important and potentially challenging things to say about the likely consequences of this policy. The democratic process surely requires that such information be available in a timely manner to allow effective debate and scrutiny. Without it our elected representatives are neutered.

This Government is a strange mix (in many respects). There is a rhetoric of transparency and openness, combined with continuation of the sort of sharp practice in manipulating the policy process that they would be only too willing to condemn in others. The former leads to actions like publishing data on governmental expenditure that probably gave every member of the Cabinet cause squirm. They didn’t have to do it and it can only lead them into trouble. Yet they still went ahead and published. In many ways this a good thing from the perspective of open government. Yet at the same time a story suggesting a blatant manipulation of the policy process around a deeply problematic policy can be advanced with complete plausibility. Claims to a commitment to open government are clearly not established to the extent that suggestions of sharp practice are met with gasps of incredulity.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the time comes. It will be deeply disappointing if the Liberal Democrats do not join other critics if the process plays out as the Guardian suggested. And it will be just as disappointing if the (non-Coalition, backbench) Liberal Democrats – with a strong record of concern for equality and human rights – do not engage critically with the policy, if the impact assessment indicates that it will indeed be divisive. Of course, whether anyone outside the DWP will have the time to digest the information before joining the fray is the $64,000 question. Without it our MPs will be restricted to attempting unarmed combat.

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