Government austerity policies since 2010 are disproportionately affecting women. Low earning black women stand to lose £5000 a year by 2022 as a result of cuts and changes to benefits and tax credits, even when tax cuts and the increased National Living Wage are taken into account. Lone mothers face an average fall in living standards of over 10% (£4900 a year) by 2020 as a result of lost services. When tax and benefit cuts are taken into account this increases to 18% (£8000 a year).

These impacts were predicted, not least by the then Minister for Women, Theresa May, who warned in 2010 that "there are real risks" that people ranging from ethnic minorities to women, to the disabled and the old, would be "disproportionately affected" by the Government’s austerity policies. May has been proved right. Cuts to spending on benefits and services have hit the poor hardest, women more than men and BME women hardest of all.

Back in 2010 May called on her colleagues to ensure that austerity did not have a disproportionate impact on equality groups[1], reminding them of their legal obligations under the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) to have ‘due regard’ to equality. She also warned that there were ‘real risks’ of legal challenge if the Government failed to meet this obligation. Her warning proved accurate when the Fawcett Society sought to bring a judicial review against the Government over the 2010 Emergency Budget. Unfortunately, Fawcett’s application was rejected. And although the PSED has since been used to challenge individual policies, it hasn’t had the teeth to put equality at the heart of policy making.

When the Public Sector Equality Duty was introduced into UK law in the 2010 Equality Act, many hoped that this would lead to a transformational approach to equality. The PSED was one of the last acts of the Labour government and specifically aimed to tackle structural disadvantage as well as individual acts of discrimination. It placed the burden for action on the public authority, rather than on the individual who might have suffered discrimination and aimed to build consideration of equality into the design and implementation of policy from the beginning.

The hope was that this process of ‘mainstreaming’ would move the focus from simply avoiding discrimination to proactively promoting equality. However, the incoming Coalition Government made clear that it would be taking a different approach, producing an equality strategy that argued that ‘too often the word ‘equality’ has been misused and misunderstood because it has come to mean political correctness, social engineering, form filling and box ticking’.

This new approach led to a series of changes to the PSED. The ‘socio-economic duty’ which would have required public bodies to have due regard to ‘socio economic status’ alongside other equality characteristics was removed. The proposed specific duties for public bodies in England, to back up the general duty contained in the Equality Act were reduced to two - to set at least one equality objective and to publish equality information (there are separate specific duties for Scotland and Wales). Previous equality duties covered race, gender and disability were far broader, including duties to set out steps to meet equality objectives, to consult and involve, to publish specific information on the pay gap and to consider equality in procurement. None of these were included in the PSED specific duties for England.

Messages from Government also changed. In 2012 David Cameron announced that he was ‘calling time’ on Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs), the main way in which public bodies have ensured they pay ‘due regard’ to equality. Brandon Lewis, then Minister of State for Local Government, wrote to all local authorities describing EIAs as ‘time consuming, bureaucratic, tick-box exercises’.

At the same time the budget of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was dramatically reduced from £70 to £17 million. It has been prevented from issuing statutory guidance on the PSED, its helpline was closed down and its ability to run public information campaigns was curtailed by changes to its powers. The reduction in the role of the EHRC has resulted in an information and enforcement gap around the PSED. Those responsible for the duty in public bodies express uncertainty about what is required of them and the EHRC lacks the resources to ensure that impact assessments are meaningful.

The limited specific duties, cuts to the EHRC and antagonistic attitude from senior Ministers means that the PSED has not led to the transformatory change that had been hoped for, although it has had a real impact in some areas. Some departments, including the Treasury, have repeatedly failed to publish meaningful analysis of the equality impact of their policies. In 2016 the Women and Equalities Select committee described the Treasury’s EIA of the 2015 Spending Review as ‘insubstantial and lacking in detail’. The Treasury had refused to provide a Minister to appear before the Committee to answer questions about how the department met its obligations under the PSED.

It has been left to civil society to carry out the analysis that the Government should be undertaking. The Women’s Budget Group has been analysing the gender impact of successive budgets since 1989. Since 2016 we have worked with the Runnymede Trust to carry out a comprehensive analysis by gender, race and income, including analysis of cumulative impact of changes to tax, benefits and spending on services from 2010, projected to 2020. These have provided important evidence of the equality impact of policy, and have shown that such assessments are possible, but have not been enough by themselves to change policy.

If the PSED is to fulfil its potential, there is a need for:

• Stronger specific duties for England including duties relating to gender equality and a duty to carry out equality impact assessments

• Strengthening the capacity of the EHRC to share best practice, monitor and enforce implementation of the PSED

• Commitment at a senior level of Government

• Improvement in the understanding and capacity of public bodies to meet the requirements of the PSED

• Restore the socio-economic duty

• Meaningful engagement with civil society including women’s organisations during policy development

If the PSED was strengthened, properly enforced and positively promoted in this way it still has the potential to transform the equality landscape.

Mary-Ann Stephenson is Director of the Women’s Budget Group. She has previously been Director of the Fawcett Society and Commissioner on the Women’s National Commission. She tweets @maryanncv8

[1] By equality groups may was referring to the ‘protected characteristics’ in the 2010 Equality Act, which are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation