The government failed to consider the impact of its spending cuts on women before pushing ahead with them, the High Court will hear today.
The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between the sexes, will launch an attempt to seek a judicial review of the emergency Budget presented by the Chancellor George Osborne in June. It is the first time a Budget has faced such a legal challenge.
Some ministers are privately nervous about the case, fearing that it could harm the image of the Coalition Government among women. There are already signs that women's fears about the cuts are hurting the Conservative Party. Last week's ComRes survey for The Independent showed that the Tories enjoy the support of 40 per of men but only 31 per cent of women, while Labour has the backing of 36 per cent of men and 44 per cent of women. The overall figures showed Labour on 40 per cent and the Tories on 36 per cent.
Treasury ministers have been unable to say whether an "impact assessment" about the cuts was undertaken before the Budget, fuelling suspicions that this was overlooked.
Theresa May, the minister responsible for women and equalities, wrote to the Chancellor before the Budget warning that the Equality Act 2010 required the Government to consider the impact of its decisions on groups including women, ethnic minorities, the disabled and older people. She noted that women made up a higher proportion of public-sector workers than men.
"If there are no processes in place to show that equality issues have been taken into account in relation to particular decisions, there is a real risk of successful legal challenge by, for instance, recipients of public services, trades unions or other groups affected by these decisions," Ms May warned.
The Labour Opposition, which has accused the Government of "covering up" the effect of the cuts on women, asked researchers at the House of Commons Library to assess the Budget measures. They found that 27 tax, benefit and pension changes will hit women harder than men. The findings may form part of the evidence if the High Court agrees to a full judicial review.
The Commons Library found that, of the £16bn raised in direct tax, benefit and pension changes in the Budget and spending review, £11bn will come from women. It suggested the Budget would hit women almost three times as hard as men and the spending review twice as hard.
In a separate move, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has begun a formal, independent assessment of whether the Treasury met its legal obligations to consider the impact on different groups of decisions in the spending review. The commission, which gives its verdict next summer, has the power to force the Government to put right its mistakes or pledge not to repeat them.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow minister for women and equalities, said last night: "The Fawcett Society is absolutely right to fight this unfair Budget in the courts because no government is above the law. Legal protections – backed by all political parties – require departments to promote equality of opportunity for women and men. Yet George Osborne has done the opposite, without even bothering to look at what this will mean for women's lives."
Ms Cooper added: "Time and again the Government is trying to hide the facts. They have refused to reveal figures to Parliament, the public and the Equality Commission. George Osborne clearly hoped his unfair plans would go unnoticed. It's outrageous that this Government has launched the biggest assault on women and families in generations. George Osborne pretends that 'we are all in this together' but is hitting women hardest and taking more from children than the banks."Reuse content