The UK government's budget may be unlawful according to a legal case launched in the high court. It is claimed Treasury officials broke the law by not carrying out an equality assessment of whether plans for spending cuts would hit women most.
The action is being taken by Britain’s leading women's rights group in what is believed to be the first ever legal challenge to a British government's budget. The Fawcett Society, which believes the plans "risk rolling back women's rights in the UK by a generation", is being represented by barristers from Matrix Chambers, which was co-founded by Cherie Booth QC, the wife of former prime minister Tony Blair. It follows research that suggested women would shoulder three quarters of the pain inflicted by the budget.
Karon Monaghan QC, one of the country's top equality and discrimination lawyers, will argue that by law MPs should have been able to look at such a study before voting on the budget. If there was any suggestion that moves would discriminate against women, then ministers would have had to take "urgent action" to mitigate the impact.
"This is not something we would do lightly," said Ceri Goddard, chief executive of the Fawcett Society. "We are really concerned that the government did not carry out a gender equality assessment and we believe they did not. That is why we are seeking a judicial review."
Goddard argues that the government should not only have carried out the assessment but made it public for MPs to consider. "There is a point of principle here. The question is – had the government followed the proper process, would parliament have voted for the budget? If they had known that 72 per cent of cuts would be borne by women, would they have voted for the budget?"
Fears about the impact of cuts on gender equality were raised recently when a piece of research from the House of Commons library claimed that, of the £8 billion net revenue to be raised in one financial year, almost £6 billion would come from women, compared with just £2 billion from men. It pointed out that women in low-paid public sector jobs and education would be more likely to be hit by a pay freeze and heavy job losses. Cuts in benefits and tax credits were also likely to hit them disproportionately.
Samantha Mangwana, a solicitor at Russell Jones and Walker who is taking the case, said the law was clear.
"Although public authorities have been subject to the gender equality duty for three years, there is widespread ignorance not only about how strong these laws are, but also what specific steps are required to be undertaken. However, the case law is crystal clear. Firstly, an equality impact assessment must be conducted before policy decisions are taken. Secondly, this is not a box-ticking exercise. The impact assessment must be a rigorous analysis. Similarly, there should be written evidence of it, otherwise it suggests that the discriminatory impact was not properly examined." Mangwana said the government also had a duty to take urgent action should there be any evidence of discrimination.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also warned the government about its legal duties.