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GUEST POST: Equality Impact Assessments in Local Authorities

Today we're publishing the third in a series of blogs from two student placements Engender is hosting from the University of Strathclyde Applied Gender Studies and Research Methods course. These blogs explore women's representation and decision-making around women's equality in local authorities across Scotland. You can see other blogs in the series here.

Katie Young graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in English Literature in Summer 2020, and is now studying a Master’s degree in Applied Gender Studies and Research Methods at the University of Strathclyde. She is passionate about women’s fiction and empowering girls and young women to fight for gender equality in Scotland through volunteering with Girlguiding, and tweets under @katieeey.

Graphic with a bright lilac background with left-aligned black quoted text which reads "By placing equalities at the heart of the decision-making process and opening these procedures up to public scrutiny, local authorities can involve the community in their work, ensuring that these important and impactful decisions are made with their best interests at heart." The quote is attributed to Katie Young, Student placement, University of Strathclyde at the bottom left hand side of the graphic. In the top right hand corner is the Engender logo, a black circle with an equals sign in the middle

I’ve been researching how Equality Impact Assessments are used in both West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute councils, how they may or may not consider the impact of specific policy changes on women, and how they are implemented. To do this, I’ve spent lots of time searching through council websites and reading lots about new policies put forward by both local authorities to find potential gaps in their policies and consider how they might be improved to embed women’s needs within their work.

Under the Equality Act (2010), councils are legally required to publish Equality Impact Assessments to assess and review their policies and procedures. This allows them to:

  • Address the potential impacts of a new policy and ensure that they are working to eliminate discrimination towards groups mentioned in the legislation;
  • Promote equality of opportunity within the local area;
  • Enable individuals with protected characteristics to fully participate in and build relationships within their local community.
In both West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute, Equality Impact Assessments are published on the local authority’s website, with West Dunbartonshire having assessments to view up until the end of 2019, and Argyll and Bute publishing assessments more recently, with their most up to date information published in March 2021. By publishing this information online and making it accessible to the public, it makes it easier for residents to hold the local council to account over the decisions they have made, but for people in West Dunbartonshire, this is more difficult as the information on their new policies is not clear on their website. Both cover a vast array of different issues that are relevant to people in the local community, such as health and social care, strategies for youth work and community engagement, and the improvement of local parks and facilities. In doing so, local authorities are not only able to become more transparent about their decision making processes, the factors they take into consideration when developing new policies, and the work that they intend to do in the local area, they also offer an opportunity to address and mitigate the impact of inequalities before proposals are fully implemented.

In my research, I focused specifically on guidance that should be published by local authorities on their process for conducting Equality Impact Assessments, as well as the assessments themselves and how they measured the impact of policy on women specifically. In West Dunbartonshire, this guidance is relatively easy to find and has a clear explanation of the legislative background for conducting Equality Impact Assessments, detailing what they mean by protected characteristics and their inclusion of the Scottish Government’s Fairer Scotland Duty (2018) that specifically focuses on mitigating socioeconomic inequality. It asks that we consider three main points when undertaking an Equality Impact Assessment:

  • Inequality of outcomes;
  • Inequality of process;
  • Inequality of autonomy.

Here, it asks questions about how policies specifically impact the community, the resources that are needed to ensure that it does not further existing inequalities, and the impact of the policy on other community groups and services. Considering this in relation to protected characteristics requires an evidence-based policy approach, which often consists of further consultation and continuous monitoring to identify required actions that the council must take, and ensure that equalities are addressed should the needs of the community change after the policy is introduced. It also provides some contextual information on the importance of Equality Impact Assessments where legal challenges have proven assessments to be unfit for purpose, such as the Southall Black Sisters’ case against Ealing Council in 2008, where funding for specialist domestic violence services was directed away from specific support for BAME women to an ‘all women’ approach, which found that the council was not following its own equalities guidance and had misunderstood the need for these services to mitigate multiple inequalities.

Argyll and Bute’s guidance, however, was slightly more difficult to find. After sending a Freedom of Information request, I found out that their goals for conducting Equality Impact Assessments were broadly similar to West Dunbartonshire, where they want to enable better opportunities for scrutiny of their decision making processes, enable more informed decision making, and consider the impact of policy and procedural changes on all socio-economic inequalities, including the impact on island communities to take into account the diversity within the council area. They are also part of the Fairer Scotland Duty and have committed to review and update their equalities guidance regularly, most recently in February 2020. They also provide detailed information on the consultation process and how this can best be carried out to ensure that equalities are continuously monitored, an overview of the process for committing to and carrying out an Equality Impact Assessment, and a glossary of key terms within the guidance, which makes the process more accessible and transparent. Unlike West Dunbartonshire, they do not provide any examples of notable Equality Impact Assessments, examples of good practice, or areas where assessments could be improved.

In conclusion, both local authorities do show a commitment to considering equalities within their work, but this is not consistent across the equalities guidance that they publish. Although West Dunbartonshire does well in providing contextual information to stress the importance of considering equalities when devising new policies and procedures, they don’t provide assessments for their most recent decisions. Argyll and Bute’s commitment to continuous review of their own policies suggests that there is a strong commitment to equalities within the local authority, where their guidance is easy to understand and made more accessible through the use of a glossary of key terms and a clear explanation of the procedures in place. Both local authorities do have some work to do to improve their equalities procedures, where Argyll and Bute could make their guidance more accessible and obvious on their website, and West Dunbartonshire should commit to publishing Equality Impact Assessments more regularly and more visibly online. If these small changes are made, this would really make a difference in their work to minimise inequalities within the area by allowing local residents greater opportunity to hold them to account by increasing the amount of information that is available to them. By placing equalities at the heart of the decision-making process and opening these procedures up to public scrutiny, local authorities can involve the community in their work, ensuring that these important and impactful decisions are made with their best interests at heart.

Engender occasionally works with students as part of their placement requirements for university or college courses - this allows students to work with Engender on specific areas of our work for women's equality. Student blogs form part of their course assessment, and they do not receive payment from Engender.

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