Theresa May, the Home Secretary, warned the chancellor that cuts in the budget could widen inequality in Britain and ran a “real risk” of breaking the law, a letter leaked to the Guardian shows.
The letter was sent to George Osborneon 9 June, less than a fortnight before his emergency budget, and was copied to David Cameron.
May wrote “there are real risks” that people ranging from ethnic minorities to women, to the disabled and the old, would be “disproportionately affected”.
May urged that steps be taken to avoid breaking the equality laws, warning that “there is a real risk of successful legal challenge”. The Guardian has been told her advice has not yet been acted upon.
The Fawcett Society has filed a legal challenge, arguing that the government failed in its legal duty to assess whether spending cuts would hit women unfairly. A coalition of ethnic minority groups is planning a separate legal challenge.
May wrote her letter as minister for women and equalities. She said: “This letter is to remind colleagues of the legal requirement to additionally consider how women, disabled people and ethnic minorities are affected.
“I fully share the objective of spending cuts. Equally it is important that fairness is at the heart of those decisions so that all those most in need are protected. In this connection, there are real risks that women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and older people will be disproportionately affected. Women, for instance, make up a higher number of public workers, and all four groups use public services more.
“The majority of those in receipt of tax credits and welfare payments are also from these groups.” May spells out the legal requirements placed on the government by the Equality Act of 2010.
May warns that government spending decisions face being struck down by the judiciary. “If there are no processes in place to show that equality issues have been taken into account in relation to particular decisions, there is a real risk of successful legal challenge by, for instance, recipients of public services, trades unions or other groups affected by these decisions.”
May says she has asked the Government Equalities Office to develop help for departments to “assist them in understanding the legal obligations”.
She reminds Osborne that “fairness is a key principle” of the coalition government before urging that the budget be used “to demonstrate our commitment to reducing the government deficit fairly”.
Dave Weaver, chair of the 1990 Trust said: “The implications of this letter are deeply worrying because it shows that government departments have been warned they will not only break the law … but also run the risk of worsening race inequality. Therefore we see no alternative but to initiate a judicial review.”
A spokesman for the Government Equalities Office said: “She wrote to all departments, not just Her Majesty’s Treasury, reminding them of their duty under the law. She was not required to write it, but felt it would be helpful.”
Osborne claimed in his budget speech that his measures were “progressive”, but independent analysis showed the poor would be hardest hit. Figures from the Commons library show the cuts will hit women hardest. They show over 70% of the revenue raised from direct tax and benefit changes is to come from female taxpayers, with nearly £6bn coming from women and just over £2bn from men.