In Irish budgets some are more equal than others
Ireland must follow best practice and place equality at the centre of decisions on public finances
Food for thought: every fifth child in Ireland is at risk of poverty, going without a substantial meal in a 24-hour period or living in unheated homes
The Government is, this week, finalising another budget that will have wide-ranging implications for people’s lives and wellbeing. Sadly, however, the budget will not include an assessment of its likely impact on specific members of our society, nor will it explicitly focus on the equality and human rights dimensions of cuts and tax increases.
Despite the fact that civil society groups have, for many years, been calling for analysis of the effects of proposed budget measures, Budget 2014 will again be lacking in equality impact assessments that could positively feed into political decision-making and bring transparency to the budgetary process.
Talk of equality impact assessments and equality-proofing might seem abstract; however the implications of not having a system whereby budget measures are assessed in this way before implementation are very real. Retrospectively, perhaps in nine months or a year, research will show that inequality and poverty have increased yet again, and that specific groups have been disproportionately affected by the budget. Studies by the ESRI, Tasc, Grant Thornton, and even the Department of Social Protection, have borne this out for previous budgets, so the pattern is unlikely to change.
For instance, a study conducted by the think tank Tasc on Budget 2011 showed that lone parents were most adversely affected by measures in the budget, losing proportionately more income than other groups. An assessment of Budget 2013, by the Department of Social Protection, found that lone parent household were, again, hardest hit, as were households with children. Child poverty has steadily risen since the onset of the economic crisis, with one in 10 children now living in consistent poverty, and every fifth child being at risk of poverty. This means children go without a substantial meal in a 24-hour period, or are cold since their parents cannot afford to heat their homes.
For those at the receiving end of political decision-making not informed by equality analysis, such retrospective research – undertaken overwhelmingly by non-government bodies – will come as cold comfort. Who needs a research study to tell them they are disadvantaged and experiencing poverty?
Power of research
Research can be powerful, however, when it is conducted in advance of major decisions concerning public income and expenditure, and when it is used to ensure those decisions don’t have an adverse impact on already disadvantaged members of our society. In other countries this is widely recognised, since more information and research allow for improved decision-making.
In Northern Ireland and Scotland, for example, equality-proofing is adopted as standard precisely to avoid the kind of situation we have here, whereby decisions are made without first establishing whether they will add to our ever-increasing poverty rates and to the further marginalisation of certain groups. The Scottish system of Equality Budgeting actively involves civil society in the budgetary process, and entails the publication of draft budgets together with full equality analyses. In Northern Ireland, an even more wide-ranging approach is adopted, with public bodies having to ensure their policies and practices are equality-proofed, and citizens having recourse through the courts should specific groups find themselves disadvantaged.
To be clear, the budgetary process in Ireland is itself a political construct. The lack of information on human rights and equality implications of the budget, the lack of open and constructive debate, the pre-budget kite-flying, the restricted civil society engagement, the secrecy surrounding matters that fundamentally concern all of us – these characteristics of the present system can be changed in favour of a far more transparent, and less ‘top-down’ approach, if the political will is there to change the status quo.
By adopting an approach to budgeting that places equality at the centre of decisions concerning the public finances, the Government could avert considerable hardship, particularly for those most marginalised in our society. Such an approach would give credence to the Government’s commitment to opening “up the Budget process to the full glare of public scrutiny”, and to “tackling Ireland’s economic crisis in a way that is fair, balanced and which recognises the need for social solidarity”.
If these sentiments, expounded in the Programme for Government, are genuine, then the Government should initiate a consultation process with civil society to begin a dialogue on how to bring about serious reform in the Irish budgetary process, with a view to introducing a model along Scottish or Northern Irish lines. Now is the time to ensure equality and human rights take centre stage– to minimise the fallout from the economic crisis, and to ensure a better and more just Ireland for the future.
On October 27th, International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we will be available to engage with interested parties on how to progress budgetary reform. The Equality Budgeting Campaign and the Free Legal Advice Centre will host a civil society forum in response to Budget 2014 in the Mansion House (2pm-4pm). We invite civil society representatives and legislators to join us, to ensure more transparent, accountable and equitable budgeting in the years ahead.
Dr Clara Fischer is a member of the Equality Budgeting Campaign.