Department of Finance 'failed to comply' with equality scheme ahead of budget

(Northern Ireland) Credit: UTV
The budget had been prepared during the three-year collapse of the Assembly. Credit: UTV

The Department of Finance "failed to comply" with its equality scheme in the preparation of the 2019/20 budget, the Equality Commission has found.

Following an investigation, the commission made the finding in how the department had carried out its equality assessment and how it was presented to the decision maker.

Conor Murphy has been Northern Ireland's Finance Minister since the Stormont Executive was reformed in January 2020, this budget had been prepared during the three-year collapse of the Assembly.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had responsibility for the decision at that time in the absence of devolved ministers. Those in the role over the year included Karen Bradley to July 2019 and Julian Smith to February 2020.

The commission also found that the department failed to comply with its approved equality scheme in relation to its commitment to consult on Equality Impact Assessments.

While the department presented an Equality Impact Assessment of its spending plans for the budget to the Secretary of State, as it had carried out no consultation on it, this did not conform to its equality scheme commitments.

The commission also found there was no public consultation during the budget development process for 2019-20, either on a draft budget and spending plans/draft budget allocations, or on any Equality Impact Assessment of those plans.

The commission has made recommendations for the department to improve practices.

A spokesperson for the department responded saying that the timeframe set did not allow for the consultation, adding: "This was a matter outside of our control."

Chief commissioner Geraldine McGahey said equality screening is a legal requirement.

"The Section 75 duties established by the Northern Ireland Act require public bodies to ensure that equality of opportunity and good relations considerations are at the core of policy development; screening and equality impact assessment should be central to the policy making process," she said.

"This is a legal requirement, compliance is not optional, and compliance with the duties is a vital building block for good governance and accountability within a public authority.

"In this case, the Department of Finance was compiling information for the budget for all our public services - a key policy that affects us all.

"Consideration of the need to promote equality of opportunity and the desirability of promoting good relations while developing Northern Ireland's budget should be fundamental to the policy making process and not be side-stepped as it was in relation to the 2019-20 budget.

"Our politicians and senior officials must lead by example and ensure that they are equipped with the right information so that equality considerations are given the right place in policy making and decisions taken."

A Department of Finance spokesperson said: "The 2019/20 Budget and timeframe was decided by the Secretary of State not the Department of Finance. This was a matter outside of our control.

"The department recognises the importance of equality impact assessment and consultation in preparation of the Budget.

"However there are many factors which are outside the department's control, for example, in terms of the next Budget the timing of the Spending Review by the British Government will significantly impact on the window for us to consult locally."