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The serious business of proofing

How to assess how policy advances equality and human rights, and reduces poverty

The May 2016 Programme for Government commits the Government to “develop the process of budget- and policy-proofing as a means of advancing equality, reducing poverty and strengthening economic and social rights”. In doing so, it specifically recognises the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) as an independent expert body to support the development of this proofing.

The commitment focuses on equality and human-rights budgeting including by developing institutions to support proofing processes in key Government Departments and strengthening the budget-scrutiny role of the Oireachtas. There is a separate commitment for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to advance the role of social impact assessment.

Ireland was once a leader in policy-proofing. The 1997 National Anti-Poverty Strategy ‘Sharing in Progress’ pioneered ‘Poverty Proofing’ to assess all major policies and programmes at design and review stages to ensure that they either contribute to reducing poverty or, at least, do not increase poverty. It was applied to major economic and social proposals and was embedded in the Strategic Management Initiative for the public sector.

A National Economic and Social Council evaluation in 2001 found a high level of formal compliance with poverty- proofing. However, there was confusion as to whether the objective was tone-setting or practical. Over time there was a shift from overall poverty-proofing to specific poverty-impact assessment in the Office for Social Inclusion. The non-statutory exercise became a ‘tick box’ exercise, and there was a gradual rundown of the supporting institutions including the Office of Social Inclusion.

Elsewhere, the Gender Equality Unit in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform developed, promoted and supported Gender Impact Assessment Guidelines for the National Development Plan 2000- 2008. This had been mandated by the EU for disbursement of its Structural Funds.

Progress was found to have been made on mainstreaming gender under the headings dealt with by the National Development Plan. However, progress uneven. The process ended with the closure of the Gender Equality Unit.

An Equality Proofing Working Group was established in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It was an initiative of the Equality Authority which funded it 2000-2008. It instigated a number of pilot projects, promotional events, proofing tools, and data analyses to support policy-making to take account of the situation, experience and specific needs of groups experiencing inequality and covered by the grounds in equality legislation. This initiative collapsed with the diminution of the Equality Authority over the 2009-2010 period.

It is difficult to isolate specific outcomes generated through these processes. However, progress includes: process innovations including in information provision, data-gathering and analysis; greater transparency; greater accountability; and culture change within public institutions. Improvements were also made in various policy areas.

The procedural and substantive progress smoothed the path for new commitments to human-rights and equality-proofing, including equality and human-rights budgeting.

The commitment to human-rights and equality coincides with changes to, and pressure for reform of, the budget process. An OECD report, ‘Review of Budget oversight by Parliament: Ireland’ in 2015 recommended a range of reforms aimed at improving the quality of policy-making, resource-allocation and accountability, and ultimately at promoting better outcomes for citizens.

These reforms included greater ex-ante engagement of the Oireachtas in fiscal planning through commitments by Government to provide more information to the Oireachtas and the establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Office to analyse information about taxation, expenditure and performance, and to cost policies.

There have been a number of important new developments in the budgetary process this year. These include publication of the Spring/Summer economic statement (SES) and parliamentary engagement in the National Economic Dialogue (NED), which the budget scrutiny committee attended, in June. In July the Tax Strategy Group papers were published and forwarded to parliamentary committees. The Budget White Paper will continue to be published on the Friday before Budget Day.

Documents available on Budget Day will now include distributional analyses. SWITCH analysis will be available before the Social Welfare and Finance Bills. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will have regard to equality and human-rights-proofing as part of its social impact assessment framework. There will be a new ex-ante focus on the ‘Stability Programme Update’ with more parliamentary comment encouraged, and there will be greater parliamentary engagement with mid-year expenditure reports.

At the end of June 2016 the ‘Report of the Select Committee on Arrangements for Budgetary Scrutiny’ set out proposals, on foot of the Programme for Government, for a new budget scrutiny framework. This should include: a Budget Oversight Committee which has since been established; enhanced budget scrutiny by existing Oireachtas sectoral Committees that should involve engagement with civil society; and the early establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Budget Office – on a non-statutory basis in the first instance and on a statutory basis within two years.

This Report also states that Government proposals for budget changes and policy changes should be policy-proofed with specific reference to gender, age, disability, poverty and regional impact, and should be subjected to a distributional impact assessment. It recommends that the Independent Parliamentary Budget Office should liaise closely with IHREC, taking opportunities for exchange of information and learning about their respective agendas.

Proofing: high standards demanded
Proofing: high standards demanded

As to Budget 2017 on 11 October, the Select Committee recommended that, to advance the proofing arrangements, the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform should be requested to provide an early briefing on the development and implementation of the Government’s proofing of the budget-making process – to the Committee on Budgetary Oversight. However, it would be better if individual Ministers could also be asked to engage with their counterpart committees in the early autumn over progress made in the proofing of any specific proposed policies.

All this represents substantial progress on the Government’s commitment to enhanced engagement with the Oireachtas throughout the budget cycle. However, it is clear that the 2017 staging posts are constrained by Constitutional provisions and by executive prerogatives. Therefore, it is expected that much of the meaningful parliamentary engagement with the budget will focus on the legislative stages between the budget and the introduction of the Finance and Social Welfare Bills.

The commitment to human-rights- and equality-proofing, including equality- and human-rights-budgeting, derives from the UN ‘Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights’ which in June 2015 encouraged the Irish government to better deploy rights-based budgetary governance processes. The Committee recommended: phasing out austerity measures and ensuring that progress is made in the effective protection of economic, social and cultural rights in the post-crisis recovery; reviewing the Irish tax regime, with a view to increasing revenues to restore pre-crisis levels of public services and social benefits; and using human-rights impact assessments in policy-making.

The IHREC is committed to using its enabling and compliance powers to bring these recommendations into effect. The IHREC’s 2016-18 Strategic Plan stresses five goals, one of which focuses on building support for and advancing socio-economic rights and actions to deliver human-rights- and equality-proofing of key legislation and budgetary processes. The IHREC has briefed the Select Committee and civil society on developments and possibilities.

Ireland has had little experience of human-rights or equality budgeting. It is a complex and demanding field. Gender budgeting has been described by Elson as a process of merging two sets of knowledge, that of gender equality and that of public-sector budgeting/financing. Quinn describes it as the “integration of gender as category of analysis into budget process”. Gender budgeting is required in about 60 states, often as an IMF condition. An IMF study to be launched later this year will describe various models and experiences of gender-proofing and offer valuable lessons to advance gender budgeting.

There are different traditions of proofing. Some human-rights approaches focus on principles. Equality or gender-mainstreaming approaches focus on the process of implementing budgets. Poverty-proofing and poverty impact assessment approaches often focus on assessing distributional outcomes for different groups. Human-rights- and equality-proofing, including equality and human rights budgeting, needs to draw from and integrate these traditions.

Irish people can invoke the new public sector duty imposed by section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014. This requires public bodies to have regard to equality and human rights in the performance of their functions. The IHREC has also sought to implement lessons from international experience.

The Centre for Economic and Social Rights, for example, has developed ‘OPERA’, a four-dimensional monitoring framework for economic, social, and cultural rights. ‘OPERA’ promotes a focus on: measurable outcomes in enjoyment of these rights; the policy efforts in processes and substance to secure such outcomes; the resources allocated to enforcement of these rights; and state compliance with international covenants.

Budgets should advance key human-rights rubrics such as: progressive realisation of rights; non-retrogression in the enjoyment of rights; maximisation of available resources for the enjoyment of rights; and immediacy of obligations for rights implementation. Given Ireland’s poor record in revenue generation and bottom-of-league-table trend in public spending, as a percentage of GDP, inevitably a key indicator of commitment, the focus on evaluating efforts to maximise the resources available to facilitate enjoyment of rights appears particularly useful.

Lessons from elsewhere suggest that institutional reform to develop proofing capacity does not happen overnight. The pace needs to be realistic and incremental. For Ireland, this should focus on working to establish, in the medium term, a well-resourced and fully functioning independent parliamentary budget office that can hold government and departments to account.

In Budget 2017, short-term progress can be made with the following steps

• Establish a national proofing committee to advance the institutional framework for human rights and equality proofing, chaired by the Chair of the Budget Oversight Committee and with the IHREC, ESRI , Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, and independent experts as members.

• Ensure all Departments, as part of their Section 42 public sector duty to have regard to equality and human rights, establish human rights and equality statements that set goals and establish issues, and link budget expenditure to advancing these goals.

• The Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform should include a human rights and equality statement in their respective budget statements.

• Specific government departments, with support from the IHREC, should, during 2017, participate in demonstration models of proofing to pilot different approaches.

 

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By Mary Murphy