Skip to content

Blog Post

‘Gender-neutral’: Universal Credit Equality Impact Assessments

Equality Impact Assessments can improve decision-making and and show if public bodies have considered equality

Marilyn Howard

Equality Impact Assessments have been criticised as being tick-box exercises. But they can improve the quality of decision-making and show that public bodies have considered equality. The story of Universal Credit assessments illustrate gender-neutral policies, highlighting the need to improve how equality is considered in policy decisions.

A common perception is that public sector decision-makers are no longer required to undertake Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs). But equality impacts should be considered (even if not in the format of an EIA).

When making decisions about policies or practices, the Equality Act 2010 requires public bodies to consider the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity, and foster good relations between those who have a characteristic protected under the Act and those who do not.

The general duty requires a public authority to give ‘due regard’ to equality in its decision-making; this doesn’t mean EIAs (though EIAs can demonstrate that due regard has been given to equality).

Specific duties are not stand-alone but support the general duty. They vary across Britain; in Scotland and Wales the specific duties include requirements to assess equality impacts of a new or revised policy or practice.

EIAs – process not outcome

EIAs focus on process – enabling decision makers take policy, practice or financial decisions based on evidence about equality, and to consider any disproportionate impacts on a particular protected group.

Guidance and case law highlight that the duty is continual, applying both before and during policy considerations. Not a tick-box exercise at the end.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron was concerned about tick-box bureaucracy, stating that EIAs no longer needed to be done. This has been interpreted as removing EIA requirements, though in adding ‘if these issues have been properly considered’ he implied recognition of equality considerations.  Furthermore, EIAs still remain a way to show due regard, the Minister for Women and Equalities  recently confirming that EIAs are integral to policy development and decision-making:

Across the public sector, we must ensure equality impact assessments are effective and remain core and integral to our policy development, with proper consideration of equalities knitted into our organisational cultures and decision-making’.

EIAs of Universal Credit

Universal Credit (UC) amalgamates six means-tested out-of-work benefits, and tax credits. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) undertook EIAs in the early days of UC, but their adequacy has been questioned and they don’t seem to have been followed up or updated to reflect policy changes.

One author of cumulative impact assessments states that, even when produced, the problem with DWP EIAs are that they:

  1. Are simplistic, containing limited detailed evidence;
  2. Are surprisingly political, building arguments on controversial (non-evidenced) assumptions (such as about second earners); and
  3. Use ‘strange comparators’, comparing an affected group with claimants of a benefit overall, rather than the general population, concluding that policies are gender-neutral, because existing policy already disadvantages women.

Gender-neutral policy 

DWP has described its UC policy as gender-neutral, as when women and men are in the same circumstances, they are treated equally under UC (though in practice women and men are rarely in similar circumstances).

In relation to plans to migrate existing benefit claimants onto UC, the DWP claims that:

no benefit recipient with a protected characteristic will be affected because there are no adverse or disproportionate negative impact on equality and Decision Makers are content that the need to advance equality has been considered appropriately…and that a full assessment has been made (2011)’.

Rather than gender-neutral, aspects of UC disproportionately affect women(such as conditionality for parents and incentives for second earners, apparently assuming a traditionally gendered ‘male breadwinnermodel (the main earner is likely to be a man in around 80% of couples entitled to UC).

The UC single payment EIAs

With the UC single payment, couples jointly claim, but the partner completing the online application nominates one bank account for UC payment, contrasting with previous benefits/tax credits, payable for different purposes and potentially to different members of a couple. Indeed, both partners could receive Working Tax Credit – the childcare element goes to the nominated main carer and other amounts to the (main) earner. Child Tax Credit (CTC) is paid to the partner the couple nominates as the main carer. According to the DWP’s 2010 EIA , 86% of CTC recipients were female, and in 87% of Jobseeker’s Allowance cases, the principal claimant was male.

A UC award can only be split at DWP’s discretion in exceptional circumstances  such as domestic or financial abuse, or financial mismanagement. This has gendered implications as women are more likely to experience domestic and financial abuse. Disclosing, and getting a split payment, could also worsen the abuse .

UC payment could create an environment where one partner may have more power over the other, abusers having greater scope for financial control than under previous arrangements.

Although labelled by one Minister as a ‘sideshow, concerns about the UC single payment have been raised by Parliamentarians and stakeholders since 2010, including two select committees (Work and Pensions and Home Affairs).

The tail end of the UC White Paper promised that the Government would consider scope to arrange payments so that support for children goes to the mother or main carer, as with tax credits. The UC White Paper EIA  stated that Government was considering potential impacts, with evidence about how families share their income and how money intended for children is spent; and would report more fully in the Welfare Reform Bill EIA. This does not appear to have happened.  There was no separate EIA of draft regulations, gender impacts being outlined in an appendix to the Impact Assessment (though not mentioning the single payment, despite this being identified as a risk of negative impact in previous EIAs). So can due regard to gender equality be demonstrated?

Better evidence and engagement  

‘Due regard’ requires public authorities to have adequate evidence for their decision-making; engagement with stakeholders can help decision-makers develop this evidence and avoid basing policies on assumptions. Comprehensive EIAs (including cumulative assessments of reforms) can improve policy outcomes and meet gender equality goals.

The new DWP Secretary of State has said she is listening to organisations like Women’s Aid and Refuge, and considering making the UC single payment to the main carer.

Building on this, the DWP could use EIAs more effectively in their everyday decisions through drawing on stakeholder expertise at an early stage of decision-making. This could help identify equality impacts and any mitigating actions before policies are implemented – potentially avoiding some of the adverse impacts that have thus far accompanied UC roll-out.

[Marilyn Howard is an Honorary Research Associate at Bristol University Law School, doctoral student at the School for Policy Studies, and a member of the Women’s Budget Group. She is writing here in a personal capacity]

Related content