What we did

On 1st August 2010 the Fawcett Society filed for a ‘Judicial Review’ of the Government’s 2010 ‘emergency’ budget. We asked the courts to examine whether the budget had been drawn up in accordance with the law – in particular the legal requirement that the government consider the way in which different measures impact differently on men and women.

Why we did it

The tax and spending measures included in the 2010 budget will leave a lot of people worse off, but are hitting women disproportionately hard. Our analysis, that of the Women’s Budget Group and the House of Commons Library has found this beyond doubt: some £5.8 billion of the £8 billion of cuts contained in the budget will be taken from women’s pockets. Partly this is because of the kinds of benefits being capped or cut are those that more women than men rely on: Cuts to housing benefit – 1 million more women than men claim housing benefit, including many single mothers at risk of poverty. Cuts to maternity benefits – the abolition of the universal Health in Pregnancy Grant and the restriction of the Sure Start Maternity Grant, a benefit for low income mothers, to the first child only. Cuts to child benefits – child benefit frozen and the abolition of the baby and infant elements of the child tax credit which will hit women in middle income households who are trying to combine paid employment with motherhood. Public sector pay freeze – women account for a clear majority of those earning more than the pay freeze threshold. Linking the indexation of benefits, tax credits and public service pensions to the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rather than Retail Price Index (RPI) – flagged by the Institute for Fiscal Studies as ‘the biggest change to welfare policy in the June 2010 Budget’ this means the real value of benefits, tax credits and public service pensions – all of which women rely more on than men – will decrease exponentially over time. Many of these individual measures will do a great deal of harm, but add them all together and the effects are disastrous. Women – who are already typically poorer than men – are being forced to bear the brunt of cuts.

How we did it

Our case was based on a piece on legislation called the Gender Equality Duty. This duty (which has now been replaced by the Public Sector Equality Duty in the 2010 Equality Act) placed an obligation on public authorities (including central government departments) to have ‘due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful gender discrimination and harassment’, and to ‘promote equality of opportunity between women and men’ when carrying out their functions. To meet the requirements of this piece of law, the government would have had to ‘assess the impact of their current and proposed policies and practices on gender equality’ and produce what is commonly known as a ‘Gender Equality Impact Assessment (GEIA). It was our belief that the government did not assess the impact of their budget on equality between women and men. If they had, they would have realised that their budget was going to hit women disproportionately hard, in such a way that it undermined equality between women and men, and so would have been required to think about how they could mitigate against this harm.

What happened?

Fawcett’s bid for a judicial review reached the high court for a ‘permission hearing’ on 6th December 2010.

The government, represented by the Treasury:

  • Conceded that they had not met all the requirements of the Gender Equality Duty when drawing up the budget acknowledging that of over 100 budget measures they had only looked at the likely impact on women of 2.
  • Expressed regret for not having done so, and pledged to take a different approach in future.

The Court:

  • Was clear that government budgets, regardless of the economic context they’ve been drawn up in, are subject to equality law.
  • Agreed that the budget needed to be looked at again given it’s skewed impact
  • Decided that the Equality and Human Rights Commission – who were separately examining the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review – were best placed to do this.
  • Did not grant us a ‘Judicial Review’ of the budget.

What our legal challenge achieved:

  • Our case was ground breaking and far reaching in its effects: never before had a government budget been challenged in the courts in this way, and our action sent shock waves up and down the country.
  • We kick-started a change of approach within government: the need to consider the way in which policies impact differently on women and men is now much more widely understood; gender impact assessments are becoming more routine.
  • Our case achieved widespread media attention such that the unequal impact of the cuts on women is now well known. As the debate about the future of our economy continues, how women will be affected by different fiscal measures is more commonly considered.
  • The media interest also boosted the profile of this small but vital piece of equality law.
  • Local councils and other authorities spending public money during a time of cuts are more aware than ever of the legal requirement that they consider the way in which their policies impact differently on women and men – as are the people watching them! This means that when, for example, a local police force is deciding which services to trim down to save money and which to keep, they know they must think about who relies on those services, and whether one group will be disproportionately affected in comparison to others if they scarp, for example, race relations specialists. Judging by the messages of support that poured in from men and women around the country, our case also gave hope to those that felt powerless in the face of an economic approach they didn’t agree with. Ironically the government is now “reviewing the very legal duty we used – the public sector equality duty which currently means all public bodies must pay “due regard” to equality.