Ecorys comes under pressure for Women's Vote fund administration

08 March 2018

Professional services firm Ecorys has come under scrutiny regarding its role in administering a government fund. The £5 million pot was aimed at supporting women’s rights groups in the 100th anniversary of female suffrage – although less than 5% was allocated to grassroots groups.

While significant advances have been made in terms of gender equality, both public and private bodies have come under increasing pressure in recent months, regarding sexism in the workplace. Recently, a number of high-ranking members of the professional services industry were faced with allegations of sexual assault, while the BBC came under fire for its significant pay gap. Earlier in 2018, the UK’s Treasury Select Committee sent letters to 33 financial services firms yet to sign up to the Women in Finance Charter, as around half of the UK financial sector were still to commit to the initiative, while the UK banking industry in particular faces continued criticism for its failure to address its lack of gender diversity.

In this context, the government, and contractor Ecorys, are coming under heightened levels of scrutiny, regarding the allocation of funds designed to boost gender parity campaigns across the UK. Initially, Chancellor Philip Hammond had promised that a total of £5 million in public funds would be set aside, in order to celebrate the centenary of female suffrage in Britain. However, the figure actually allocated was a far smaller £1.5 million, and the government has since been accused of undermining celebrations in a crucial year for gender equality, after groups were given less than a month to submit an online application for funds to mark February 6th, the anniversary of the day the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed.

Ecorys comes under pressure for Women's Vote fund administration

While £1.2 million was awarded to local authorities of towns and cities with a strong history of suffrage, just 4% – or £60,000 – of funding allocated to grassroots groups for the year has been allocated in time to celebrate the day the law changed. This prompted numerous women’s groups to exclaim disappointment and frustration, as they were left unable to access government funds in time to organise local celebrations.

Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, said, “It’s been incredibly slow, we’ve been complaining about that – everyone has been complaining about that. It’s been a real missed opportunity of getting that money six months ago, frankly. We’ve been pushing and pushing and it’s been a source of intense frustration.”

Online applications for small grants up to £2,000 from the Women’s Vote Centenary Grant Scheme had opened on January 4th. The small grants deadline for other events in the year closed on January 31st, and received 185 applications. The funding round for grants between £2,000 and £125,000 is not yet open. A government spokeswoman said groups could make a bid for funding by post from early December, but online applications were only opened a month later. No details were given about why online applications were not open earlier, or the number of postal applications made.

Ecorys scrutinised

Activity around the centenary had been led by the Government Equalities Office (GEO) until Justine Greening left the role of education secretary in a reshuffle in January 2017, when Amber Rudd was given the position of Minister for Women and Equalities. After a number of high-profile cabinet exits, following a disastrous 2017 election for the Conservative government, the administration of the fund was prepared for outsourcing.

In order to oversee the administration of the fund, a tender to employ a grant-making body was launched in September 2017. The contract was eventually presented to private firm Ecorys in November, though details of the deal have still not been published on the government website.

Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, Dawn Butler, said the shambolic distribution of funds raised questions about the government’s outsourcing policies. “This was supposed to be a momentous opportunity for the country to come together and celebrate the achievements made over the last 100 years of some women gaining the vote. But instead, the government has outsourced yet another contract that has fallen woefully short of achieving its intended purpose,” she said.

Related: Ecorys to study restriction of financing of terrorism.


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