Making equality count - The case for budgetary impact assessments

The urgency of introducing a more transparent and equitable approach to economic policy-making cannot be stressed enough, as the brunt of the economic crisis continues to be borne by those least able to do so. By Clara Fischer.

Ireland’s next budget is almost here, and people all over the country are bracing themselves for what is set to be another harsh exercise in cuts and tax increases. While much of this will be presented in abstract terms – a few percentages increased here, a few numbers decreased there – the very real effects of Budget 2013 will be keenly felt, especially by those already marginalised within our society.

Given the government’s reluctance to equality-proof or gender-proof the budget, it is more than likely that Ireland will continue in the current trajectory toward increased inequality and poverty, thus exacerbating a situation that has been worsening since the beginning of the economic crisis. In 2010 alone, there was a 25% increase in inequality in Ireland, with the top 20% earning 5.5 times the income of the lowest 20%. The percentage of people in Ireland living in consistent poverty increased, as did the percentage of children at risk of poverty, which stands at 19.5%. Just recently, it was established that one in ten people in Ireland experiences food poverty

Those are harrowing statistics, especially in light of the fact that people at the higher end of the socio-economic spectrum increased their wealth by 8% in 2010. The research clearly shows that ‘burden-sharing’, ‘collective belt-tightening’, or whatever similar misnomer successive governments have used and continue to use as a means of justifying disproportionate hardship for those at the bottom, is simply that – empty rhetoric that is not based on fact. The truth is that, at present, the government simply doesn’t have the required information to devise, implement and review policies that might actually result in a more level spreading of the economic burden across different sections of society. Instead, we are seeing the continued, disproportionate targeting of lone parents, people with disabilities, and women, to name but a few, as impact analyses are not undertaken, data is not collected, and information is not made available.

While one could be uncharitable about the political motives behind this, it is important to note that other countries do things differently. In Scotland, for example, it is common practice to publish a draft budget in September, which can then be debated before being finalised in January. Importantly, the draft budget is published alongside an “Equality Statement”, which provides a full impact analysis by equality category (such as gender, age, disability, etc.), as well as by budget theme (e.g. “health and wellbeing”). The budget process itself is also significantly at variance with the Irish process, as an Equality Budget Advisory Group, made up of civil society and government actors, ensures that equality is fully integrated in economic policy-making and planning. The meeting minutes of this group are readily available on the Scottish Government’s website, as are the draft budget, and the attendant Equality Statement.

The Scottish approach is far more transparent, and affords equality a central role in economic policy-making, planning and review. There is no reason why such an approach could not be introduced in Ireland. Given the pressure the government currently finds itself under, especially with regard to economic policies being perceived as unjust and unfair, adoption of an approach more akin to the Scottish model would actually take some of the sting out of the debate. The government would be able to point toward impact assessments and research, and could show that its decisions are based on evidence and carefully planned examination of the circumstances of different sections of Irish society with a view to implementing the most equitable policies. Equality budgeting would also halt the increases in inequality and poverty we’re currently experiencing in Ireland, while satisfying citizens’ demands for economic justice and true ‘burden-sharing’. 

For the last number of months, the Equality Budgeting Campaign has been working toward the introduction of such a more transparent and equitable approach to economic policy-making, and has successfully won the support of the Sinn Féin parliamentary party, and of Labour, Independent and ULA representatives. More pressure must be brought to bear, however, upon the powers-that-be if a substantial reform like this is to be made a reality. The urgency of doing so cannot be stressed enough, as the brunt of the economic crisis continues to be borne by those least able to do so. For anybody interested in pursuing equality budgeting with us, we invite you to contact us or to follow us on FacebookTwitter, or via our website. We also have a petition for the introduction of equality budgeting here. For further details on equality budgeting, see our information booklet here

Dr. Clara Fischer holds a Ph.D. in political philosophy and is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network. The network is part of a broad-based coalition of civil society organisations and concerned individuals seeking the introduction of equality budgeting in Ireland.

This article originally appeared on Progressive-Economy@TASC.

Image top: Sepehr Ehsani.