“It does what it says on the tin” – Reviewing laws to advance equality

What do a 1994 TV advert for wood stain and the legislative process have in common? The importance of delivering on a promise.

Opening a Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) expert seminar to explore a gender-specific approach to scrutiny of legislation, the Scottish Parliament’s Deputy Presiding Officer, Christine Grahame said:

“There is an obligation on governments when passing legislation to allow it to be put into practice and see if it does what it says on the tin.

 

The only way to do that in my view is through post-legislative scrutiny, where we can ask: is this doing what our parliament intended?”

Christine Grahame’s question is particularly important when it comes to matters of gender equality. Globally, substantial legislation has been passed that should lead to better lives for women and girls. Sadly, many of these laws are not being implemented.

As a young institution with a strong commitment to inclusion, the Scottish Parliament provided the perfect setting for the 10 November investigation into whether a more gendered approach to post-legislative scrutiny can help bridge this growing gap between what a law commits governments to do and what actually happens. 

The seminar brought together leading experts in parliamentary procedures, policy development and gender equality from more than six countries to explore what best practice might look like in integrating gender analysis and post-legislative scrutiny – two key aspects of good governance. Together, they identified six recommendations to lawmakers in every country.

  1. Start early

Rather than waiting until a law has been passed and then trying to assess who it might have helped or hurt, gender analysis should be embedded in the policy development and legislative processes from the very beginning.

Restructuring these processes to ensure an equality lens is applied from the earliest stages is not only good practice, but saves parliamentarians from the most dreaded of fates: legislating in haste, but repenting at leisure.

Equality impact assessments (EQIAs) are used by many parliaments as an ‘early warning system’. While they’re not perfect, they do offer a useful mechanism to identify and address potential problems at the outset of the policy development cycle.

  1. Get the numbers right

Measuring equality and inequality is a developing science and it depends on high-quality data, which isn’t always there. Identifying what data needs to be collected and in what forms is an important part of getting both gender analysis and post-legislative scrutiny right.

Equally important is having people in the relevant institutions who understand how to read and use the data – not just what the figures say but what this means in terms of peoples’ ‘lived experience’. As Dr Angela O’Hagan remarked, “Just because you have a gender doesn’t mean you understand gender.” Collaboration among parliamentary committees and/or government departments can help improve the range of evidence used for gender analysis of legislation, as can pro-active collection of useful data by statistical agencies.

  1. Impact assessments should have impact

Interestingly, there were differences of opinion as to whether the findings of an EQIA obligated legislators to act, or if bad news from an EQIA was little more than a ‘heads up!’

The majority agreed that when potential inequalities are found, members of parliaments and other legislatures should be compelled to either address these or change the course of the policy or law.

  1. Outreach and inclusion should be deliberate and active

One of the reasons that legislation has historically created disadvantages for women and girls – and other groups as well – is that they are vastly under-represented in decision-making processes. Addressing this is not just about getting more women elected, but it is also about making sure women are integrated into all aspects of the policy process. This means actively ensuring that they are called as expert witnesses by legislative committees, that they are fully engaged in policy consultations, and that they have a chance to help decide what the most important issues are.

Achieving this requires parliaments and government departments to seek out women and girls of all backgrounds – pensioners, disabled young people, recent immigrants, rural women, and so on – to ensure their experiences inform decision-making processes. They should not be invited to engage only when what are perceived to be women and/or family issues on the table, but no matter the issue under consideration.

  1. Money offers profound evidence of commitment

Want to know how genuine a government’s commitment to equality is? Follow the money.

Gender budgeting is often misinterpreted to mean spending more money on policies that will help women. But it is really about measuring impact and ensuring that government is spending and raising money in ways that are fair and that advance equality. Austerity measures, for example, frequently have a vastly disproportionate impact on women’s income.

  1. Political will makes a difference

Both equality and good governance make real progress when there is strong leadership behind them. Even if this type of leadership is not present at the top, government departments, legislative committees – the executive and parliament – can find ways to collaborate to advance equality through legislation, policy and good practice. Sharing techniques to monitor and report on equality-related issues is essential for progress to be made quickly.

You may also like