Today, David Cameron announced that he was to axe ‘Equality Impact Assessments’ (or EqIA’s) which he identifies as being obstacles to British ‘power and prosperity’. This was at a meeting of business leaders, although they only apply to the Public Sector through Statutory equality duties anyway. It’s an interesting case to be making within a few days of having implemented a policy on regional elections so painfully inaccessible and bad for equality he forced a widespread democratic fail… the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Elections.
If you’re interested in politics, you were probably asking similar questions as I was last week – where was the information on the PCC elections – and why didn’t we hear more about it? The role is hardly insignificant: they will replace their region’s police authorities, have control of the police budget and the power to hire and fire its Chief Constable. Yet barely anyone knew anything or showed up. Turnout was around five million (of a potential 33 million), which is amazingly low, given official statistics state that in 2011/12 there were 9.1 million crimes reported in the UK.
If you assumed the lack of information was local mistake, it wasn’t. According to the Telegraph “The elections had been planned for two and a half years and cost more than £75 million to stage but the Home Office refused to fund a free mail shot for candidates, instead putting their details on a website.”
The decisions apparently lay with the Home Office (although I’ll gladly add any corrections on this) who followed the policy to ban a free mail shot for the electorate (which we take for granted with other elections). The government also decided to hold it in November, when no other elections were going on and we don’t usually go to the polls in the UK. But it’s the decision to NOT inform voters who was standing which is the most dangerous game the government have played, and it would appear a damaging example of the Conservatives knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing. They can’t say they weren’t warned – there was vocal opposition before the election as well as objections from the UK’s own Electoral Commission (the public body appointed by the government to advise on how to maintain minor privileges like democracy and voter trust).
Informing the electorate about the candidates is a crucial element of any democratic process. The decision not to provide this directly disenfranchised the millions of people who are not online. One of whom I met outside the polling station; he was an elderly man and walked straight up to me saying he was furious he hadn’t been sent anything, and that he couldn’t access it because he wasn’t on the internet. He also made reference to it not being the kind of democracy people had fought for, but by that point he’d already twigged I didn’t work there and was moving on inside to pick a fight. He was right, and he’s not alone. His exclusion was also perfectly predictable. Which is where those pesky EqIAs should have come in.
David Cameron and chums would have had access to all this information from the EqIA which would have been undertaken on this decision and the whole policy of the election. Anyone with a basic grasp of statistics could have used these to highlight risks inherent in the approach to the election that so spectacularly bombed.
For example, the Office for National Statistics publish a little gem called the Internet Access Quarterly which tracks who does and does not use the internet. For Q2/2012 (April-June this year) they reported that 7.82 million adults (16 per cent) had never used the Internet – or put another way – over 20% of voters. Broken down by gender, age, income and geographical location it demonstrates further stark differences about who lacks access to exclusively online information, and this evidence would have told the Conservative policy makers that their policy was clearly and significantly exclusionary. (For example, 1.2% of 25-34 year old males have never used the internet, contrasted with 42.2% of 65-74 year old women. Or 19.2% of people in Wales have never used the internet, versus 12.2% for the South East).
The idea that people should have to hunt down information about the candidates in a county election where their odds of meeting the candidate were therefore already much smaller, sets a dangerous precedent. Of course supporters of the PCC system highlighted that the Commissioners replace authorities who were entirely unelected and therefore lacking democratic accountability. The low turnout means that the new commissioners are barely any better.
In a double whammy the process used in fact resulted in making our police ‘leaders’ less representative than they were before! According to Politics.co.uk:
“We have just elected the least gender and ethnically diverse set of politicians in England and Wales. Just 12% are women and none are from black or minority ethnic groups. Police authorities were at least as diverse as local councillors (31% female, four per cent BME) but the new cast of PCCs can’t even match the diversity of the House of Commons”.
That’s right; the new Tory initiative to hand local control to local people has resulted in entirely eliminating any BME representation AT ALL, and reduced women’s representation to being on a par with that in the parliaments of Arab States. Syria is a near match!
But then, the Conservatives would have been armed with all of this information already. They would have had to be under the rules for Equality Impact Assessments of any new policy. Their advisors would have been required to seek out and present decision makers with this information, and much more besides, as easily as I did from my kitchen table.
So really, if being just a little bit critical, it’s not the existence of these assessments that is dangerous for the UK; it’s having a government which uses them, and sees the wealth of information they provide about risks to equality, representation, democratic participation and equitable treatment…. and then acts to its own citizens’ detriment anyway.
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