Post by Muireann O’Dwyer School of Politics and International Relations, UCD
As the dust settles after the publication of the longest ever Programme for Government, it’s a good time to start taking a deeper look at the promises contained within the published plans for the new government. A document born of long negotiation, it is clear that there will be some difference between the rhetoric of reform and the reality of governing. Much has been made of the compromises, for example on Irish Water, on the 8th amendment, and on turf cutting. But one promise has received scant attention – the promise to do a gender and equality analysis of the budget this year, as well as gender and equality analysis of budget proposals from other parties and outside groups.
In a document that ranges over 156 pages, it’s understandable that not every detail of the programme is dissected by the media. However, this is a proposal that, if carried out well, could lead to big changes in the Irish budget process. It is important to start discussing this now – unless we are happy to allow this to become a simple box ticking exercise in the budget cycle.
What does gender and equality proofing the budget mean?
The commitment to gender and equality proofing in the Programme for Government is light on detail. The commitment is tied to the upcoming budget, meaning the system will need to be in place by the end of the summer. The Programme for Government includes this commitment as part of a wider reform of the budget policy, including the establishment of an Oireachtas Budget Office.
Gender or equality proofing processes have been adopted by several countries, and has been recommended by several NGOs and other groups, including the Equality Budgeting Campaign in Ireland, the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the European Parliament.
What does Gender and Equality Proofing look like in Practice? It means examining the entire budget to evaluate the differential impact that it will have on men and women, and on different groups within our society, such as the economically disadvantaged. Previously, some of this analysis has been done by think tanks such as TASC, or the ESRI, which found in 2014 that married or co-habiting women were hit harder by austerity measures than their male counterparts. Similar analysis in the UK by the Fawcett society has found that women have been disproportionately impacted by the successive “austerity budgets.”
Budgets can have this sort of uneven impact because of the inequality within society, and because of the way gender shapes the economy of a country. For example, different industries tend to be dominated by one gender – so a range of cutbacks to the nursing sector would impact women more, while budget policy that harms the construction industry would impact men’s income more. Additionally, because of the unequal distribution of care work, where women tend to take more responsibility for childcare and other forms of care work, cuts to supports in this area have a gendered impact. Gender proofing doesn’t mean that policies which have an unequal outcome are forbidden, but it means that there must be an awareness of these outcomes in the decision making process. Similarly, equality proofing would require a consideration of whether budget decisions increased economic equality.
Why should we be talking about this?
As government promises go, this may seem like a small matter. While it is true that it does not bind the government to any particular budget decision, a robust equality and gender proofing of the budget would make it easier for the public to evaluate the budget. It would mark a move away from a narrow focus on deficit management, to include discussion of the wider impacts of budget policies.
The commitment is therefore to be welcomed. As with much of the Programme for Government, however, the devil really will be in the details. Gender and equality proofing could be carried out on a very superficial basis, with the evaluation focusing only on taxation, for example. This would ignore the impact of public sector cuts, pension policy, investment inducements and the whole range of budget policies that shape the economic position of people. Worse still, the promise could be ignored or postponed.
If we do not discuss the type of budget proofing we want, and if the promise is allowed to slide into a simplistic box ticking exercise, we would miss a great opportunity; to change the debate over budget policy, and to force the government to account for and justify policies which increase inequality or increase the gender gap in income and wealth. Detailed analysis on these sorts of budget outcomes would enable voters to really question politicians on their commitments to equality. As the gender pay gap continues to be an issue in Ireland, and inequality in pensions becomes an increasingly serious issue, to miss this opportunity would indeed be a shame.
Muireann O’Dwyer is a PhD Candidate in European Law and Governance, and an Occasional Lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations in UCD.