You would have to wonder who put this one in the Programme for Government. There seems no intention actually to do it. That, sadly, is not a new phenomenon. This time is different though. They don’t even seem to know what it is. Nonetheless they said they “would develop the process of budget and policy proofing as a means of advancing equality, reducing poverty and strengthening economic and social rights”.
Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, understandably brushed the whole matter aside in answer to a Dáil question from David Cullinane TD of Sinn Féin. He said that, “overall, the analysis and transparency of the decision-making process has been undergoing constant improvement over recent years and I envisage this continuing”.
The problem is that proofing involves more than analysis and transparency. It requires analysis and a commitment to change policy to further goals of equality, poverty-reduction and implementing economic and social rights. It requires transparency, but also the participation in decision-making of groups experiencing inequality, poverty and human rights issues.
He went on about the ESRI SWITCH model and its “distributional analyses of budget tax options”. He bravely told of his Department’s new Social Impact Assessment (SIA) framework “designed to focus on policy areas that cannot easily be incorporated into the existing SWITCH model”. That was it really, SWITCH and SIA to the rescue.
He could have summed it up with either “we are already doing it” or more accurately, since they are not, “we are not going to be doing anything on this”.
Political promises continue to depress.
The Dáil Committee on Arrangements for Budget Scrutiny, on the other hand, appears for some reason to be taking the commitment seriously. It held a special session to engage with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC). However, it all boiled down to a plea at the end from the Committee for IHREC to provide “five or six key points against which Departments can be measured”. This was a disappointing conclusion to what is an ambitious and complex commitment to assess and improve the budget, while it is being prepared, to ensure it contributes to advancing equality across nine grounds, and addresses poverty and economic and social rights.
It goes back to the question of who put this into the Programme for Government. Stephen Donnelly, David Cullinane and Tommy Broughan seemed to know what they were talking about in the debate. There was no one on the Government side, which presumably wrote the Programme for Government, who seemed to know what this proofing was about, or who championed the commitment with any enthusiasm. That explains a lot.
IHREC made it clear that the proofing had to be done by the relevant Government Departments and not by IHREC. It is worrying that the Dáil Committee seemed surprised at this. Proofing policy for equality has to be integral to the policy-making process. Corrections must be made before the policy is implemented. Nevertheless IHREC indicated it might provide support, having initially suggested its role was one of encouragement only. There certainly needs to be support as there is no evidence of the necessary capacity being available to Government Departments.
Stephen Donnelly TD of the Social Democrats raised the important issue of controlling quality during the process. IHREC was not making any offers in this regard. Valid fears were expressed by Tommy Broughan TD, independent, that the process could degenerate into a tick-box exercise. An independent and authoritative setting of standards is vital and IHREC is best placed to play this role.
The Dáil Committee had to be disabused of the notion that equality, poverty and human-rights proofing of the budget could be put in place in time for the forthcoming budget. IHREC clarified the scale of change demanded by the commitment not just in the content of the budget but in the systems for developing the budget. It usefully suggested a strategy of evolution where small foundational steps could be taken this year and built on over coming years to develop a more complete proofing process. This approach requires some clarity as to what a fully-fledged process might involve but here there was little clarity on this.
There was acknowledgement of the complexity of a proofing process that encompasses equality, poverty and human rights. There is no national or international model for this and no clear direction whether the three areas should be integrated or addressed separately. There was some acceptance that there are differences between the three fields encompassing both ambition and approach.
IHREC offered some clarity in relation to human rights. This covers: progressive realisation of economic and social rights; ensuring maximum available resources are invested in these rights; protecting core basic standards in these areas; and ensuring no unjustifiable regression of provision in these areas. Greater familiarity was clearly evident in relation to poverty goals of setting and seeking to achieve targets for reducing the numbers of people experiencing deprivation, the risk of poverty, and consistent poverty respectively.
There was no mention of goals for equality. This is the area where most ambition is demanded and the silence was not promising. Achieving full equality in practice needs to be the policy goal for women; lone parents; carers, lesbian, gay and bisexual people; trans people; people with disabilities; young people; older people; and Black and minority ethnic people including Travellers.
Proofing should lead to substantive change in the availability to these groups of goods such as income, work, wealth, education, accommodation and health.
Little detail was provided in the debate on the different approaches demanded in proofing for poverty, equality and human rights. There was a failure to link the commitment to proofing with the new statutory duty on public bodies since 2014 to have regard to the need to “eliminate discrimination, promote equality, and protect human rights” in implementing their functions. As part of their duty public bodies must identify the equality and human rights issues relevant to their functions. Tracking investment in these issues could usefully be a focus for any budget-proofing exercise.
The true seeds for the commitment to proofing in the Programme for Government germinated following last year’s recommendations of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights when Ireland presented its report. Recommendations made included that the Government should: “ensure that austerity measures are gradually phased out and the effective protection of the rights under the Covenant is enhanced in line with the progress achieved in the post-crisis economy recovery”; “consider reviewing its tax regime, with a view to increasing its revenues to restore the pre-crisis levels of public services and social benefits, in a transparent and participatory manner”; and “consider instituting human rights impact assessments in its policymaking process, particularly relating to Covenant rights”.
IHREC too played a role in securing these recommendations and can take much credit for the commitment to a broader proofing mechanism that encompassed equality, poverty and economic and social rights in the Programme for Government. However, they face a dilemma, as became clear in the Dail Committee’s insistence on knowing how many staff they would dedicate to supporting this proofing. There is a classic taming mechanism for state agencies whereby Government overloads them with responsibilities beyond their original mandate to a point where they cannot even implement this mandate. IHREC showed a gratifyingly keen appreciation of this danger.
The challenge it faces is evident in its recently published 2015 Annual Report. IHREC, for example, received 32 requests for legal assistance but only granted assistance in five cases. IHREC received 14 requests for legal inquiries but refused all of them. Action on securing implementation of the public-sector duty was limited to background research and work with the Institute of Public Administration on an equality and human rights course. There was little by way of action to support good practice by employers or service providers. These core areas of work must be afforded the resources to grow. As must the potent commitment to supporting budget-proofing.
By Niall Crowley