Equality law failures around Northern Ireland’s high street voucher scheme

Equality law failures around Northern Ireland's high street voucher scheme

Claire Kemp of the Children's Law Centre

Northern Ireland’s high street voucher scheme was introduced without regard for equality law obligations, the Equality Commission has found.

The watchdog investigated following two individual complaints that the Department for the Economy had failed to comply with its own Equality Scheme commitments as it did not fully or properly consider the potential equality impacts of excluding those under the age of 18 from the Scheme.

A report published today sets out the investigation’s finding that the Department did not undertake its equality screening at the earliest opportunity in the policy development process.

It also found that the screening form that was presented to the minister regarding the scheme included reference to a decision, stated as already made, on the eligibility criteria for age, that the scheme would only apply to those aged 18 and over.

Given the significance of this criteria for the overall scheme, the minister, therefore, could not have paid due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity when considering the policy proposal and deciding on this scheme, the Equality Commission said.

Geraldine McGahey, chief commissioner, said: “Our investigation in this case identified a number of areas where the Department for the Economy failed to comply with its equality scheme commitments in relation to the equality screening of the high street scheme.”

The Children’s Law Centre has welcomed the “really significant finding” by the Equality Commission.

Claire Kemp, policy officer at the Children’s Law Centre, said: “The Children’s Law Centre repeatedly raised concerns at the time that the Department for the Economy had failed to properly comply with its own equality scheme. We have now been vindicated in that, but unfortunately around 450,000 children and young people have lost out in the meantime.

“The frustration now is that while the Equality Commission has made this finding, the young people have still lost out. The high street voucher scheme was announced in April 2021 and it was clear at that point that the Department was intending to exclude under-18s with no basis for doing so. Yet it has taken almost two years to get to this point.

“Children and young people suffered during the pandemic like everyone else. Many of them contributed in the recovery and should have benefited from the high street voucher scheme. Not only that, but providing vouchers to children and young people could have made a big difference in a lot of lives by providing essentials for disadvantaged children at a time when people were facing escalating hardship.

“Children and young people are no less deserving than anyone else in our society, yet they are repeatedly failed, forgotten and discriminated against. This finding should be a reminder to all government departments that they must take their equality duties seriously.”

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