Publication - Minutes

Equality Budget Advisory Group minutes: September 2020

Published: 30 Nov 2020
Date of meeting: 11 Sep 2020

Minutes of the Equality Budget Advisory Group (EBAG) meeting held on 11 September 2020.

Published:
30 Nov 2020
Equality Budget Advisory Group minutes: September 2020

Attendees and apologies

Attendees:

  • Angela O'Hagan (Chair)
  • Emma Congreve, Fraser of Allander Institute
  • Tim Ellis, Scottish Government Performance and Outcomes
  • Liz Hawkins, Scottish Government Communities Analysis
  • Alison Hosie, Scottish Human Rights Commission 
  • Mirren Kelly, COSLA
  • Uzma Khan, Scottish Government Economic Policy and Capability
  • Tom Lamplugh, Scottish Government Office of the Chief Social Policy Adviser
  • Angelika Majdanik, Scottish Government Performance and Outcomes
  • Dougie McLaren, Scottish Government Public Spending
  • Anne Meikle, Scottish Women's Budget Group 
  • Fiona Page, Scottish Government Scottish Budget Unit
  • Richard Robinson, Audit Scotland
  • Kenny Stewart, Equality and Human Rights Commission 
  • Sean Stronach, Scottish Government Equality Unit
  • Ben Walsh, Scottish Government Scottish Budget Unit
  • Graeme Wilson, Scottish Government Office of the Chief Social Policy Adviser
  • Gillian Achurch, Scottish Government Communities Analysis (Secretariat)

Apologies:    

  • Jim McCormick, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
  • James Fowlie, COSLA

Items and actions

Welcome and introductions 

Angela welcomed everyone to the meeting, and Scottish Government (SG) colleagues from Public Spending in particular. She noted Hugh Buchanan’s retirement and thanked him for his contributions to the Group. Uzma is leaving SG shortly and Angela also thanked her for her work with EBAG. 

Angela outlined that the purpose of this meeting was to inform equality budgeting recommendations for both this year and the next government cycle, to be put to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Minister for Older People and Equalities. She thanked colleagues for their work on this and for sharing their learning and aspirations with the Group.

Learning from last year’s Equality and Fairer Scotland Budget Statement 

Gillian gave a short presentation on findings from an internal SG review of the 2020-21 Equality and Fairer Scotland Budget Statement (EFSBS) production process. 

Angela suggested that for her the key themes that emerged were: process, communications, organisation and culture, and knowledge and understanding. Kenny asked whether feedback was also gathered from senior colleagues, given that the findings presented were from those who had worked directly on the EFSBS. Gillian noted that this had been discussed but was not gathered last year, and agreed that this would be helpful to explore this year. Angela and Ali both agreed that it would be helpful to understand what senior colleagues need to improve equality budgeting.

Emma noted that including precise numbers within the budget documents is important. 

Angela suggested that it would be interesting to know how much of the time spent working on the EFSBS is spent in chasing or finding the right people to talk to. Angela also noted that she was heartened by findings that people suggest equality budgeting analysis should occur much earlier in the budget process. She added that the feedback that people found it difficult to press colleagues for input before their budget allocations were known suggests a misunderstanding around the purpose and direction of spending. She continued that policy objectives should drive spending allocation, and that analysis therefore needs to be earlier and more proactive to influence decisions. Ali from SHRC agreed that influencing decisions is key and also added that she had found a similar lack of confidence on whether participation was having a meaningful influence on decision making in their work on parliamentary committees.

Uzma suggested that while it’s useful to highlight timing issues, policy cycle issues sit underneath these and are therefore unlikely to be solved until equality analysis is embedded into policymaking. She also raised the question of how to ensure that ministers take the evidence presented into account so that trade-offs and choices are clearer. Angela noted that this links back to the issue of parliamentary scrutiny and simultaneously looking backwards and forwards- if policy objectives are clearer and better informed at the outset then it is easier to evaluate the outcomes. Uzma also added that all ministers currently have equalities at the forefront of their minds and are asking for the narrative around this. Liz agreed and added that it is clear from work on the EFSBS which areas have a good understanding of equality and which don’t. Liz also highlighted a need for committees to conduct better equality scrutiny to further encourage good analysis of policy. 

Tom noted an issue with civil servants writing the EFSBS and also that the publication timing, alongside the budget, means less scope for officials to challenge colleagues. 

Learning from the Programme for Government (PfG) process 

Tim gave a short presentation on how this year’s PfG process built on last year’s experiences. He noted that building organisational capacity for equality and human rights analysis is perhaps the main organisational development requirement. Angela agreed and summarised that good equality and human rights objectives and analysis, making for better policymaking and better outcomes is a clear message here. Ali reiterated this and added that while there is good progress and widespread recognition of the need to focus on both equalities and human rights, there is a noticeable lack of human rights-based content. She noted that there is a lack of adequate knowledge within government of how to undertake human rights-based analysis and that capacity in this needs building. Emma added that the depth of understanding on some equality aspects might also need some improvement. 

Sean reiterated that things have improved this year, and added that ministers also recognise that the consistency of thinking about equalities across government still needs further improvement. He noted the commitment to develop a new strategy on mainstreaming equalities and human rights across government, with the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People and the Minister for Older People and Equalities heavily engaged with colleagues around this, including on analysis of PfG proposals. This work is seen as a continuing process by ministers. Uzma also reiterated that ministers are having engaged conversations about equality issues and opportunities for change.

2021-2022 Budget 

Dougie McLaren offered an update on the 2021-22 budget process which is underway. The current aim is for a December budget and the hope is to publish this alongside the Medium Term Financial Strategy (a 5-year longer term outlook, delayed from May) and the capital spending review. To some extent this will be a COVID budget which will have to address what COVID is exposing as well as the fiscal challenge that is increasing each year, and it will have to be quite a targeted budget process. We are working with an adverse context including a big income tax reconciliation and significant commitments such as around transport. The budget team are currently looking at some kind of clustering of priority themes for ministers to work together on in groups. Dougie noted perennial tensions around how budgeting interacts with wider policymaking.

It is possible that after next year’s election we could move quite quickly into a multi-year spending review. Dougie noted that support and collaboration from EBAG is really crucial and underlined his team’s desire for collaboration. He noted that with Hugh’s retirement, the team will participate as wished in future EBAG meetings. He also noted that there is added opportunity with the new Cabinet Secretary for Finance asking a lot about underpinning analysis.

Mirren proposed that one-year budgets are not conducive to challenging systematically embedded social issues. She also asked whether analysis is ever conducted on the outcomes of new commitments or how resources may or may not be diverted in future years. Dougie agreed that there are inherent problems with single-year budgeting and that while SG is somewhat constrained by HM Treasury, this is nevertheless something that they want to improve. Tim agreed that SG could make improvements in evaluation as well as impact assessments, although suggested it may not be realistic to confidently predict what will be spent for multiple future years and that COVID has perhaps highlighted the importance of flexibility. 

Emma added a plea for a more transparent and simple document. Dougie agreed and noted that the current lack of a feedback loop on budget documents is problematic. He suggested that perhaps COVID is an opportunity to streamline.

EBAG discussion with the purpose of identifying short term recommendations for this year’s EFSBS and longer-term recommendations that can be developed and packaged for the new Government post-election

Tom noted that recent renewal work has considered the tools and levers available to ministers around the budget and spending review, and hopes that priorities identified in the renew work can feed through – particularly recognising the stark inequalities that exist and have been heightened. Uzma is keen to gather all the recent new commitments together to consider their collective impact and what remains outstanding. Richard agreed that this would be useful but that analysis is likely to be difficult. 

Richard also flagged a recent Audit Scotland paper on the implications of COVID for public finances in Scotland, and noted that Audit Scotland’s focus on the volatility and uncertainty of budgets is especially relevant just now. He suggested that it is important to understand the accumulation of risks to track through the things that we think will have the most impact on equalities and human rights. 

Angela noted a need to ‘follow the money’ and Richard added that this should be about the things that money ceases to be spent on (or spending is delayed) as well as where money is spent. Emma mentioned that the Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) had planned some work on ‘following the money’ in terms of tax and benefits as well as public expenditure. The Group was unsure whether this had progressed but suggested perhaps EBAG work could link into this if so. 

Tim suggested that we need to get better at analysing the outcomes that are going to come from the spend that we do make, as well as putting money towards the outcomes that we want to see.

Angela summarised that key recommendations should include:

  • continuing to build capacity and competence in understanding of equalities and structures of equality as a proactive way of making better policy 
  • recommendations around the nature and timing of budget analysis and what elements of budget formation this should inform
  • a need for better committee scrutiny

Angela also suggested that recommendations might be usefully framed around the themes of process; communications; organisation and culture; and knowledge and understanding.

Actions:

  • Gillian to contact SFC to check on status of work on tracking spend
  • Angela and Secretariat to further work up recommendations
  • Gillian to request a meeting between EBAG, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Minister for Older People and Equalities