Councillor Robert Rams tweeted a link to Conservative Home calling for an end to Equality Impact Assessments. Instead, it suggests equality issues should be considered from the outset and form part of the planning.
The difficulty with this is that equality issues are often not properly thought through at the outset of planning a new policy and recognising the effect a policy has on some groups requires some specialist input. So having a formal assessment focuses the mind.
The difficulty is that politicians believe that equality impact assessments stop them introducing policies they want to and are a barrier rather than a positive thing. I don’t think this is true. I think they strengthen policies and ensure they will work in practice.
Let’s look at two local examples.
The Council controversially decided to introduce pay by phone parking because it would save them money on collecting cash from meters and repairing others which had been vandalised in order to steal the coins.
The only equality impact assessment performed was on the effect on staff, not residents or users. As a result, the Council failed to recognise that 40% of older people do not own a mobile phone and that those with hearing impairments have difficulty using them in noisy roads. They did not appreciate how vulnerable people, particularly women, would feel using mobile phones in the street.
As a result they ploughed ahead with the policy, which was an abject disaster. Footfall on local high streets fell by 35%, shops closed, and parking income fell dramatically.
If they had thought it through, they might have considered having an option to pay by card in a machine as well as pay by phone. I think all drivers have cards and can chip and pin. The savings could have been made without the devastating impact on the policy.
Barnet council wants to put all its services online and encourage people to use their website. This is much cheaper for them. If it is cheaper for them, then there is more money for other things, so this is a good plan.
Figures I have seen quoted elsewhere say that an online interaction costs the councils 18p, telephone interactions cost £2.62 and a counter service costs £8.30.
But unless the Council takes into account that 60% of older people have never been online they will not achieve the savings they aspire to, and will foster resentment amongst residents. Disabled people are also more likely to be digitally excluded. Both these groups are big users of council services.
An equality impact assessment should highlight this. There is also a simple answer. Not abandoning the policy, but putting some investment, a tiny percentage of the cost of the channel shift project, into teaching older people to get online.
This means that the policy will work and the cost can be easily covered by the savings which may well meet the projections. Which means, of course, that the funding for this should come from the IT/ Communications budget, not Social Services. This is another scary principle for our politicians, but in my view totally appropriate. Communication is about communicating with everyone and, despite the fact that there are other benefits to helping people become digitally included, Social Services’ budget should primarily be about care and support.
Yes, Conservative Home is right to say that the tick box is not the most important thing. The important thing is to integrate equality impact assessments into the planning of a new policy and to view them as a vital and important part of that planning. EIAs don’t work if they are an add-on, tagged onto the end. But that does not mean that they have no value. As Conservative Home says, equalities impacts are important and until thinking them through is wholeheartedly embraced then an assessment is a useful process to go through. If you use the information you gain.
Guest blogs are always welcome at the Barnet Eye