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Protest: SBS supporters outside the High Court

A council climbdown over grant criteria may make race equality more central to funders’ decision-making.

Last month, the London Borough of Ealing conceded defeat in a case brought against it by an ethnic minority women’s refuge. The authority had asked west London voluntary group Southall Black Sisters (SBS) to extend its domestic violence services to women of other ethnicities or risk losing the £100,000 of core funding it receives from the council (R&R, 9 May, p7). Ealing said that if the group would not expand its services, the money would be given to another provider to deliver them.

SBS said it would be unable to expand services to other groups without extra funding and that, if it lost its core funding, its services for ethnic minority women would suffer.

Now the council has promised to scrap the grant criteria process it undertook and review how it commissions domestic violence services in line with the Race Relations Act.

During a judicial review, both the SBS and watchdog the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) told the High Court that the council had not carried out an adequate equality impact assessment (EIA) before presenting the grant criteria to the group. An EIA would have determined whether expanding services to all ethnicities would have had an adverse impact on SBS service users.

Prior to the judicial review, the council said it accepted SBS’s claims. Council leader Jason Stacey says the authority “will now be inviting the EHRC to assist us in refining our equality impact assessment process and this will benefit all councils”.

As the case unfolded, Ealing council cited the Government’s desire for single issue funding to be “the exception rather than the rule” as a justification for its plans to expand services to all ethnicities. This was one of the recommendations in a 2007 report by the government-appointed Commission for Integration and Cohesion – headed by Ealing council chief executive Darra Singh – and led to the Department for Communities and Local Government issuing detailed guidance on how funding should be made (R&R, 8 February, p5).

The result of the judicial review is likely to make local authorities around the country carefully consider a service’s impact on ethnic minority groups before allocating or withdrawing funding. During the case Lord Justice Moses, who has been overseeing the review, said: “There is no dichotomy between funding specialist services and cohesion; equality is necessary for cohesion to be achieved.” He was due to issue his verdict as Regeneration & Renewal went to press.

SBS hopes that the judgement will be based on several principles, including that local authorities should pay proper regard to the Race Relations Act and undertake proper equality impact assessments at the formative stages of the decision-making process. In addition, SBS hopes that the judge will say that promoting cohesion does not mean disregarding the need for equality, and local authorities cannot hide behind cohesion arguments to cut specialist service provision. SBS also wants formal recognition that special services run for and by black and minority ethnic groups are not contrary to the Race Relations Act.

Pragna Patel of SBS describes the group’s win as “a victory not just for Southall Black Sisters but much more importantly for all black and minority groups and other groups whose voices are not heard”.

Neil Cleeveley, director of policy and communications at the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, says the win will send a “clear message” to funders and local authorities. “I’d be very surprised if it does not have a profound impact on how that (government) guidance is interpreted,” he says.

SBS’s solicitor, Louise Whitfield of the Public Law Project, says she expects the victory to have a “big impact” on councils. “Local authorities are having trouble getting to grips with the equality duty,” she says. “Often they don’t know enough about it or they get it wrong when funding the public sector.”

The case once again raises the issue of whether councils are disregarding race relations legislation – a point addressed by a number of reports published by race watchdog the Commission for Racial Equality before it was wound up last year. Lord Justice Moses’s ruling will set a precedent and have a big impact on future council funding decisions.