Home secretary Theresa May has warned the chancellor that the government’s planned spending cuts could cause it to breach its legal duty to promote disability equality.
May wrote to George Osborne on 9 June in her role as women and equalities minister, two weeks before his emergency budget, warning him of “real risks that women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and older people will be disproportionately affected” by spending cuts.
Her letter was written on the same day that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) wrote to the civil servants who head every government department – including the Treasury – to ask for “reassurance” that they would comply with their legal duties to consider the impact of spending cuts on disabled people, ethnic minorities and women.
A number of disabled people’s organisations have raised serious concerns about the impact of cuts on disabled people, particularly around disability benefits, with one calling plans to cut spending on disability living allowance by 20 per cent a “wholesale, brutal attack on disabled people”.
In her letter, leaked to the Guardian newspaper, May said there was a “real risk” of successful legal challenges – for example by those receiving public services or the EHRC – if government departments could not show they had taken equality issues into account in reaching their spending decisions.
This week, the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality for women, announced it was seeking a judicial review of the emergency budget on the grounds that it would increase inequality between men and women.
The EHRC told Disability News Service that it was closely monitoring the potential impact on disabled people as government departments prepared their plans for spending cuts.
The EHRC is in “initial discussions” with all government departments – including the Treasury – about the equality impact of their spending decisions, and is “watching with interest” the progress of the Fawcett Society judicial review.
If the government fails to comply with its equality duties, the EHRC has a range of powers, which include holding a formal inquiry.
Asked whether a formal inquiry was a possibility, an EHRC spokeswoman said: “I really wouldn’t want to speculate on that. So far our discussions with the departments have been fairly positive. What happens next remains to be seen.”
A Government Equalities Office spokeswoman said: “The letter was simply a formality. In her capacity as minister for women and equalities, Theresa May wrote to all government departments – not just the Treasury – reminding them of their legal responsibilities under the 2006 Equality Act.”