England & Wales

Beyond Belief

In its report Beyond Tolerance: Making sexual orientation a public matter the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recommends that local authorities and all other public agencies survey their staff and users of public services to ascertain the respondents sexual orientation. This is a potentially huge undertaking. It could involve surveying millions of citizens and having to manage the data provided.

However, the report does not provide any more clarification on how the system would work in practice. There is no list of public agencies which will be subject to this policy provided. No costings are included to show how much it would cost each public agency to perform this duty. No detail on how this new duty could/would be funded is revealed. I assume that the data would be held as an aggregate rather than be associated with named individuals. However, the EHRC do not provide specific information on the question/s to be asked or how this data will be used beyond the fact that it will populate the Equalities Measurement Framework and be used to judge performance against these indicators.

What is certain is that Britain is in dire financial straits. Our national budget deficit in 2009 amounted to £178 billion. Our economy shrank by 4.75 per cent in 2009. Our economic growth in the last quarter was only 0.1 per cent. We could easily face a double dip recession in which negative economic growth returns. This economic background does not feature in the EHRC report. They seem to be working from a default operating position that public funds are still in abundance.

Now it may be the case that such data needs to be assembled and compiled. Perhaps this is the case. However, the argument for such intrusive and costly data collection needs to be made with reference to a world where essential services are facing the prospect of severe cuts. The case needs to be set squarely against the needs of public transport, social care, health, criminal justice and defence for public funds.

Instead the EHRC seem to be calling for an incredibly costly unfunded policy to be adopted. This kind of research will not aid the EHRC’s own efforts to avoid cuts to its £70 million annual budget. It demonstrates a cavalier attitude to public funds which the EHRC should be wary of. Readers will note that the National Audit Office has refused to sign off the EHRC’s accounts.

Whichever party is elected in the upcoming General Election (by June this year) will have to make serious reductions in public expenditure if our country is not to enter a debt spiral of credit downgrades, interest payment increases and ever more severe public spending cuts. A good place to start would be to review the existence of numerous Quangos such as the EHRC and whether their responsibilities would be better performed by local authorities. At least then the bodies proposing such policies would understand a little more the costs and processes involved in implementing them.