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Alice Mary Higgins 'Budget 2018 must be gender and equality proofed'

Statistics show that Ireland has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the OECD before redistribution through tax and social transfers, writes Senator Alice Mary Higgins.

FROM “CHERISHING ALL equally” in our Proclamation to the recent, rightful, outrage over gender pay inequality in our public institutions, Ireland has often expressed strong rhetorical commitment to equality.

However, this has rarely been matched by action on a policy level and over recent years, inequality has, in many areas, actually deepened. Statistics show that Ireland has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the OECD before redistribution through tax and social transfers.

Levels of in-work poverty and deprivation are also high. Women have been at the frontline in the erosion of wages and job security, with the Nevin Economic Research Institute finding that 11% of female workers are underemployed, compared to 6% of working men, and that two-thirds of employees on the minimum wage are female.

Women also bore the brunt of many of the austerity cuts in recent budgets. Age Action has highlighted how older women were unfairly hit by 2012 changes to the State contributory pension which left the top band of payment, which mainly goes to men, unchanged, while those, mainly women, on a lower band, saw their pensions cut by up to €30 per week.

There have also been severe cuts for lone parents who experience poverty and deprivation levels far higher than the rest of the population. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection, of which I am a member, has urged practical action to reverse the cuts for both these groups in Budget 2018.

The real question is not simply how can we repair these problems, but how can we avoid them

Had these budgetary choices been gender and equality proofed and the outcomes made public, it would have been far harder for the government of the day to justify them.  Better analysis leads to better decisions and less repair work later.

Such analysis can shine a useful light even in unexpected areas. Take, for example, the public service pay freeze. On the surface, this might appear to be a neutral decision, yet research from the ESRI indicated that as more women work in the public sector, they were disproportionately affected. This was one of the main reasons why women in couples averaged a 14% drop in income during the recession, compared to a 9% drop for men.

Moreover, many of our tax reliefs, including the hundreds of millions spent on private pension tax relief each year, disproportionately benefit higher earning men.

What is gender and equality proofing and where is it happening?

Gender and equality budgeting ensures that decisions made at budget time are scrutinised for the impacts they will have on women and men, and whether budgetary choices will lessen or increase inequality within society.

These are not new practices. Australia pioneered the term in 1984 with the launch of its Women’s Budget Statement and since then many countries around the world have followed suit, including Sweden, Scotland, Austria and Belgium. This means there is plenty of experience of good practice for Ireland to draw on.

Scotland, for example, has had gender and equality budgeting since 2000 and a public Equality Statement is published alongside the budget every year. This lays out the rationale behind the decisions made by each department and sets out how each of these decisions are designed to contribute to equality rather than diminish it.

Scotland’s initiative

I recently hosted a talk by Christina McKelvie, a member of the Scottish Parliament and Convenor of its Equalities and Human Rights Committee, in which she shared with Irish Oireachtas members a number of examples of the process in action.

For example, in 2007 only 14% of the 9000 people on an apprenticeship scheme were women. This was identified as a concern during the equality proofing of the budget and the resulting change in policies actually improved overall take up of apprenticeships. In 26,000 placements last year, 40% of them women. Scotland is now continuing that equality proofing to increase access to apprenticeships for people with disabilities.

Ms McKelvie spoke about equality-proofing as a key part of good “Performance Management”. All the evidence shows that more equal societies do better. She also highlighted it as a form of “preventative spending”, saving money through effective social investment and avoiding costly mistakes.

She noted, for example, the recent UK Supreme Court ruling in which hundreds of Scottish women working in local authorities across Scotland were awarded £1.24 billion in compensation for 35 years of unequal pay.

Next steps for Ireland

Ireland has introduced a number of changes to the budgetary process over the last year, including a new Oireachtas Committee on Budgetary Oversight and plans for a new office of budgetary scrutiny. However, the government now needs to make sure that equality and gender proofing are genuinely embedded at all stages in that process.

There has been some encouraging recent engagement between DEPAR and other government departments, but it is only when every department identifies concrete equality targets that we will see results.

The Programme for a Partnership Government commitment recognises the need for “independent expertise” – IHREC and civil society both have a role to play in that. Crucially, we also need to see leadership from the Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform.

Having neglected equality in the Summer Economic Statement, Minister Donohoe needs to bring it back into the centre of decision-making. I am calling on the government to publish an Equality Statement alongside Budget 2018 and then turn that statement into action.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins leads the Civil Engagement Group in Seanad Éireann; a group of independent Senators with backgrounds in the NGO sector and civil society who are committed to bringing the voice of civil society into the Seanad chamber. An advocate for social and economic equality all her adult life, Alice-Mary keeps these principles to the fore in the Seanad and works to bring care, creativity and long-term thinking into the heart of political debate.

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