Select Committee on European Union Twenty-Fourth Report

CHAPTER 2: The Need for the Institute

11.  According to the Commission, Community legislation and policies on equal treatment between men and women will increase the demands at Community and Member State level for the collection and analysis of comparable and reliable data, and the development of appropriate methodological tools. Community institutions will need this data and those tools to ensure progress and effective implementation of Community policy[15].

12.  The Commission also saw the need for more awareness-raising activities and dissemination of information amongst European citizens, not only about achievements in gender equality but also on the obstacles and the challenges ahead.

13.  In the Commission's view this justified the setting up of the Agency as "a centre of excellence at European level, independent in the performance of its functions and disposing of the necessary expertise to carry out these tasks and serve as a technical support to the Community institutions and the Member States".

14.  The Commission added that it was a "corollary of the genuine European dimension of these tasks that the objectives of the Institute cannot be achieved by the Member States". Among other reasons, this was because it would have to establish and apply a uniform system for collecting and analysing information to ensure compatibility and comparability of data and a "methodologically-sound comparative scrutiny of the situation in Europe". It argued that this could not be done successfully by individual Member States.

15.  It also pointed out that, although human rights are dealt with in the United Nations by the Commission for Human Rights, gender equality was dealt with separately by the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Extending the functions of an existing agency, such as the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, would require substantial additional expertise and financial resources to prevent gender equality from remaining "a peripheral matter" which would not receive the necessary attention priority.

16.  For these reasons, the Commission also argued that any financial savings which might result from including gender equality within the scope of the future Fundamental Rights Agency or an existing agency would be outweighed by the disadvantages.

17.  We asked the Minister[16] whether it was really necessary to set up the Institute or whether the work it was supposed to do could not be done more efficiently and economically by some existing agency. We also asked whether the Department had consulted any British public bodies and NGOs working in the relevant field to see whether they saw the need for the Institute or whether they might be able to carry out the proposed activities as efficiently themselves, if necessary with some additional Commission funding, in collaboration with counterparts in other Member States.

18.  In reply the Minister[17], stressed the importance of gender equality as a key objective of the EU and pointed out that the Institute had been highlighted in the Commission's Social Policy Agenda "as a key tool for assisting the Commission and Member States in implementing the next phase of the Community's objectives for promoting equality between men and women and ensuring that they are incorporated into Community policies".

19.  The Minister took the view that, through data collection, research and sharing of good practice, the Institute would be able to provide policy makers in the European Commission, the European Parliament and Member States with key information on how best to achieve the Community's objectives and help them to devise policies and take action to meet the targets of the Lisbon Agenda on removing barriers to labour mobility by promoting equal opportunities.

20.  She added that the Institute was intended to carry out tasks which were not being done by existing institutions such as "questions of coordination; centralisation and dissemination; the raising of gender visibility; and the provision of tools for gender mainstreaming".

21.  The Minister agreed with us that the Institute should not duplicate work done elsewhere but add value to other activities. She said this had been a key element of the UK negotiating position which was "well-reflected in the general approach reached by Council". She drew attention to references in the text of the draft Regulation requiring the Institute to ensure appropriate coordination with relevant agencies to avoid duplication and guarantee the best possible use of resources. Merging the activities of the Institute with other bodies or agencies would, in the Government's view, run the risk that gender equality would be sidelined. This would be inconsistent with the priority which the Commission and the Treaty currently gave to gender equality.

22.  The Minister added that the Department had taken informal soundings from other Government Departments and the EOC which led them to conclude that the Institute's activities would add value to the work of other British public bodies and NGOs. It would also compare data with Member States at a European level, which was not necessarily being done at national or even international level.

23.  Nor did the Minister see a risk of duplication of work done by international bodies such as the UN. She pointed out that the UN's International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) did not provide comparative relevant information and had a more international focus, particularly on developing countries. It did not look at how EU Member States were achieving the targets set out in the Lisbon Strategy.

24.  In response, we[18] accepted that gender equality was a key objective for the EU and a fundamental Treaty principle. We assured the Minister that we shared the Government's commitment to the principles of equal opportunity. We said we would support any sound, practical and cost-effective proposal that would add significant value to the work already being done by the Commission and Member States to improve gender equality and combat discrimination. But that did not mean that we were prepared, simply because the cause of gender was invoked, to go along with proposals which seemed to be of dubious merit.

25.  We added that we were still not clear precisely what purposes the data collection, research and sharing good practice, as described in the Minister's letter, was supposed to serve. Nor did we understand why it should be necessary to have a separate Institute to provide European policy makers with information which they could presumably already obtain from existing sources. We described the proposed tasks of the Institute as aspirational but vague, and in some cases positively obscure, and said that we remained unconvinced that the proposed Institute was really necessary.

26.  The Minister replied[19] that at present no single EU body collected and disseminated for information on gender equality that was easily accessible and drew on good practice in Member States. The statistical data provided by Eurostat was limited, but the Council Working Group considering the Institute Proposal had agreed that the Institute should take account of existing information and not duplicate research done elsewhere, particularly by Eurostat.

27.  She added that a national body would find it difficult to justify, as well as to undertake, the production of comparable EU-level data, drawing on good practice in all 25 Member States.

The EOC's View

28.  The EOC told us[20] that the Institute could "make a real difference to the lives of women across Europe, breaking through the resistance to and slow pace of change and supporting the work of the European Commission in ensuring proper and adequate implementation of Directives". It could add significant value to gender equality activities in the EU because of the continuing need to take specific actions to tackle discrimination on the basis of sex and to promote gender mainstreaming. A separate Gender Institute would also ensure that gender equality would remain high on the European political agenda and that the relevant up-to-date information was available.

29.  On the other hand, the EOC saw advantages in integrated holistic approaches to tackling discrimination. Although there were important differences between equality issues, it would be a mistake to underestimate the similarities in ways in which equality and discrimination could be tackled. The EOC therefore supported the concept of one integrated European body covering all equality strands.

30.  The EOC had welcomed the transformation of the existing European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia into a new Fundamental Rights Agency but was concerned that this coincided with parallel plans to set up the Gender Institute. In the EOC's experience, it was vital to disassociate gender from the rest of the equality strands. The EOC would prefer one integrated European body covering all equality strands, including gender, to two separate bodies, one covering gender and one covering all other aspects of equality. It suggested that the Council might not have given sufficient thought to the consequences of setting up two similar European bodies at the same time.

31.  As an alternative, European institutions such as Eurostat and the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions could enhance the research and collection of comparable data on gender equality and sex discrimination if provided with extra funding.

32.  We asked the EOC to expand on the virtues of bringing all equality and discrimination issues together, rather than having a separate gender institute. We were told that, although the EOC would prefer an integrated body, "the political situation at the moment" was such that it did not look as though it would be possible to have one integrated body. The European Parliament and the Council had developed separate proposals for the Fundamental Rights Agency and the Gender Institute. If that was unavoidable, the two institutes should work closely together avoiding duplication and developing common positions (Q 6).

33.  Asked about views of sister bodies in Europe, the EOC was not sure but thought that those bodies which were already working in an integrated way saw the benefits of working together. On the other hand, some perhaps felt that gender might be losing out. That was why the European Women's Lobby, for example, advocated a clear, visible gender-specific approach. The EOC advocated gender-specific actions where necessary but also a more integrated approach. Without an integrated approach some groups, such as black and ethnic minority women or disabled women, could lose out. Support for a twin-track approach, combining gender-specific actions with a more integrated, more mainstream approach, was gaining ground at a European level (QQ 11-12).

34.  The EOC subsequently reported that so far 11 EU Member States [21](and Northern Ireland) had already either integrated equality bodies or very strong coordination[22]. The UK and four other Member States[23] were considering having integrated bodies. The remaining Member States had "single ground" (separate) bodies.

35.  On the tasks that needed to be done, the EOC told us that the priority should be to collect, analyse and disseminate comparable data while ensuring more coordination and cooperation on the different fields of discrimination in Europe (Q 1). At the moment, it was difficult to find comparable European data and exchange good practice. Information was scattered across Europe and it was very difficult for national Governments, the European Commission or organisations like the EOC to collect up-to-date data, learn from other experiences and see trends across Europe (QQ 2-3).

36.  Although the EOC thought that the data produced by Eurostat was very valuable, it was sometimes out-of-date and it was not always easy for researchers to access the different gender elements in the relevant data. Eurostat did not always analyse the data it collected, or give it critical thinking, from a gender perspective (QQ 4-5).

37.  As the EOC saw it, the Institute would also organise conferences and set up networks of experts. It could help to bring together all the equality bodies across Europe once or twice a year to exchange information about important issues such as work/life balance, pensions or demographic change. Ideally, one centre of expertise should bring together all the relevant information and expertise that was scattered across Europe and provide systematic information and guidelines to equality bodies, governments and the European Commission (Q 7).

38.  We asked why other European institutions could not carry out these tasks, perhaps with additional resources and some changes in focus. The EOC felt that the main reason for deciding to set up a separate gender institute was probably visibility. There was a feeling that gender had slipped from the agenda and that more emphasis should be given to gender equality in other policy discussions being carried out in Europe. Although the work could probably be done by other organisations, visibility was one of the reasons why they should not do so (Q 18).

Government Reactions

39.  We asked the Government to comment on the EOC's views. The Minister told us that she had a great deal of sympathy with the suggestion that the Gender Institute Proposal should be put on hold until more progress was made in considering the European Fundamental Rights Agency Proposal. She had been very keen to look at the Fundamental Rights Agency option at the beginning. But EU competence was not the same across all the strands of equality issues. Having a focus on gender equality would help Member States to develop greater equality across the EU (Q 33).

40.  The Minister admitted that it was Government policy to develop a single Commission in the UK for all equality and human rights issues. Legislation to that effect was being considered by Parliament. But having a separate Institute did not mean it could not work with other areas and look at the interplay between issues of discrimination that might, for example, affect both women and perhaps a particular ethnic minority (Q 33).

41.  She added that she was insisting that the Institute should be mandated to work very closely with other relevant agencies. That was already reflected in the Commission's draft Proposal, which made clear that the Institute should ensure appropriate coordination with all relevant agencies in order to avoid any duplication and guarantee the best possible use of resources. A member of the Fundamental Rights Agency should be invited to the Management Board meetings of the Institute when both bodies were set up. The Government would want to ensure two-way cooperation between the two bodies (Q 33).

42.  In moving to a Commission of Equality in Human Rights in this country, the Minister said she was having to ensure that focus on the separate activities of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and Disability Rights Commission was not lost. She saw parallels with the Gender Institute Proposal. Having a separate Gender Institute would ensure that focus on gender equality issues would not be lost in the work of the Fundamental Rights Agency. The Institute would give real focus to gender equality and raise its profile, giving a very important signal that gender should be "mainstreamed" into all EU policies (Q 34).

43.  The Minister reassured us that the Institute was not intended to be a policy-making body: it would bring together information about different approaches to gender issues which could very usefully be shared across Europe. This was particularly important in dealing with the consequences of EU enlargement. Sharing good practice and looking at the way in which different societies approached gender issues could be very important. Although the Institute would not make policy, it would enable those who did to have greater access to how work had been done and funds deployed in trying to achieve gender equality (QQ 35-36).

44.  On balance, we accept that there may be a need to collate and interpret existing data, commission new studies and promote exchanges of information and good practice about gender issues in the EU. We accept that such activity may sometimes require a specifically European focus which UN and other international bodies could not be expected to give. But we are still not convinced that it is necessary to set up a separate European Institute to do such work or that the Commission could not be expected to find other, and possibly more cost-effective, ways of carrying out that work.

45.  On the other hand, we do see potential advantage in incorporating the work which the Institute is supposed to do in the proposed European Fundamental Rights Agency. As we see it, this would be consistent with policy being adopted by the Government to consolidate the work of the EOC with that of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commission in a new single Commission of Equality and Human Rights. In principle, we believe that this would give greater coherence and balance in dealing with these issues and we would like more consideration to be given to the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach before final decisions are taken on the Gender Institute Proposal.

46.  We conclude that the case for a separate European Institute for Gender Equality has not been demonstrated and we recommend that further consideration should be given to the alternative of incorporating the gender equality work envisaged for the Institute in the activities of the proposed European Fundamental Rights Agency on which a Report will shortly be made.

15   pp 12-15 Back

16   pp 24-25 Back

17   pp 26-27 Back

18   pp 27-29 Back

19   pp 29-30 Back

20   pp 1-4 Back

21   Austria, Cyprus, Estonia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, plus Northern Ireland Back

22   pp 10-12 Back

23   Sweden, Slovenia, Luxembourg and Malta Back

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