Bonfire of actual human rights?

Britain's Commission for equality and human rights is relatively new and designed to be effective. That was before it fell under the control of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government.

Stuart Weir
14 August 2012

Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was created in 2006, started up in 2007 and is now being emasculated. Its effective destruction will rank as one of the more scandalous actions of the Liberal Democrat ministers in the coalition government.  The zeal with which the Lib Dems' Lynne Featherstone, the Home Office minister responsible for equality, has been pursuing the near destruction of the quango that is charged with enforcing equalities laws and promoting human rights must surely be utterly at odds with a cause which I had assumed to be central to the political philosophy of most Liberal Democrats.

One Lib Dem at least, Lester Holloway, a campaigning blogger, journalist and local councillor, has had enough.  He has published on his blog a robust denunciation of Featherstone’s stewardship, cataloguing the size of the damaging cuts to the EHRC and the watering down of enforcement powers.  Holloway, a former editor of New Nation, the African and Caribbean weekly and once news editor at the Voice, complains that the Commission “is being hacked to death”, arguing that her actions make a mockery of Nick Clegg’s Scarman Lecture last November, when the Deputy Prime Minister declared: “Real equality is not just the absence of prejudice, it is the existence of fairness and opportunity.” 

Holloway hopes for a rebellion against what the government and recommends joining a Facebook campaign , which is picking up supporters.  Perhaps his fellow party members will take the lead?

He is not alone in his concerns.  Sir Bob Hepple, the distinguished public lawyer and one of the champions of the Equality Act 2010, writing in the Industrial Law Journal, says that the Commission is being deprived of key powers and funding, and that its ability “to use effectively even its restricted powers will be compromised by severe cuts in its annual budget”.  There is growing dismay and criticism among the equality specialists and human rights organisations that campaigned for the Equality Act for more than 14 years. Much of this dismay centres on the conduct of Trevor Phillips, the current Chair who is about to stand down. 

Informed opinion suggests also that the weakened EHRC will lose its status as a UN National Human Rights Institution next year.  The Commission doesn’t fully abide by the Paris Principles that govern NHRI accreditation - for example, the government has repeatedly ignored the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recommendations that the EHRC should report to parliament as part of its UN obligation to abide by these principles. The UN undertook a special review of the EHRC’s status in 2010 in response to concerns and following that review the head of the UN accrediting committee wrote to Theresa May stating that the EHRC’s role should be strengthened; its state is now much worse.  

Holloway says that the Commission will have its annual budget “slashed in half” to £26 million a year.  Having already suffered a painful downsizing after the coalition took power, it now faces life with less than a quarter of the £70 million it had in 2007.  Under Trevor Phillips, it plans to operate on just £18 million – “Not so much a tightening of belts,” says Holloway, “more like a triple amputation.  He points out that back in 2007 many equalities experts warned the Labour government that the original EHRC budget of £70 million was far too low a figure to combat discrimination across seven different equality ‘strands’ for which the new Commission would be responsible: black and minority ethnic communities; disabilities; gender; sexuality; age; socio-economic and human rights.

Moreover, he says, the EHRC will have 45 fewer staff than the old Commission for Racial Equality – which dealt with the single strand of race – had before it was scrapped, and 66 fewer than the previous Disability Rights Commission (DRC). Almost inevitably, he argues, the much-reduced size of the EHRC will bring about a comparable reduction in ambitions. “‘How can we tackle this big company or institution?’, they will ask themselves when faced with evidence of systemic discrimination. ‘We’re so small, we cannot possible take them on.’”

He concludes that the reductions and plans to strip the EHRC of significant powers will turn Britain’s prime equalities institution into little more than a glorified think-tank, lacking the resources, powers and expertise to tackle institutional discrimination in Britain.  Further to this, a majority of the black and Asian employees will lose their jobs, leaving the Commission – which is responsible for upholding equalities laws – a virtually all-white body. A joint letter signed by 124 Commission staff to Labour peer, Margaret Prosser, then Deputy Chair of the EHRC and chair of the committee which drew up the cuts package, warned that the cuts would have a disproportionate impact on black and minority staff and that “the newly appointed top layer of management is already exclusively white.”

Featherstone’s intended cull of the EHRC’s powers is presented as a modernising review to give a dysfunctional organisation “stronger focus and make it more accountable.” Featherstone argues that a bonfire of equalities powers is needed to “reduce burdens and bureaucracy on public bodies, moving away from a process-driven approach” championed by Labour. Featherstone told the Lib Dem party conference in 2010:  “What Labour did was turn equalities into a burden. What Britain needs is a seismic cultural shift in the way people view and relate to each other.”

Holloway has no respect for the “light touch” that Featherstone advocates – he responds that the government intends “to disable the Commission’s powers to undertake investigations,” limiting the Commission to gentle persuasion rather than legal enforcement in dealing with institutions that discriminate. “It’s either political will and pressure, or a court summons,” he says. “Nothing else works.”

Sir Bob Hepple calls attention to several areas where the coalition government plans to remove or weaken powers and duties with the intention to lessen the “burden” on public authorities to monitor their anti-discrimination work, including the removal of specific duties on them to engage with employees and other stakeholders in framing their equality objectives and in achieving those objectives; repeal of the general duty on the EHRC to work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination and harassment; and removing the duties on the EHRC to tackle the under-representation of black people in public life and to promote good relations between communities.

As Holloway says, the official debate carefully avoids acknowledging the scale of discrimination shown in employment figures, prison statistics, the use of stop and search powers. Nonetheless: 

"all the indicators suggest we are going backwards ... Britain is getting less equal ...any true assessment of inequality demands policies and action to specifically tackle the problem. If that is un-Liberal, then I’m un-Liberal. Rather that than suffer the brand of laissez faire, trickle-down equality this government appears to believe in. This is the wrong time to be rolling back equalities protection against discrimination. And the wrong time to be slashing the equalities commission to within an inch of its life."

Holloway sees two more threats to the Commission. “The first is a ‘zero-based budget review’ currently being conducted by Featherstone’s Home Office. This is a concept championed by Steve Hilton, the ultra-Conservative former ‘blue sky thinker’ to David Cameron. It involves starting with a budget of zero and justifying spending cash on specific things.  It is blindingly obvious that Prosser and co have already been told that the outcome of the review, which has not been completed, will be a new budget of £18 million.  The review is merely to give Featherstone political cover when all hell breaks loose and explains why Featherstone feels safe promoting the disastrous onslaught on the EHRC. Holloway’s second concern is of an expected purge of ‘old-style’ EHRC Commissioners who represent ‘tribal knowledge’ about specific equalities strands, replacing them with businesspeople – “almost certainly Tories who don’t believe in the organisation itself, let alone concepts like positive action.”

The whole agenda is part and parcel of this government’s surrender to corporate interests, the compulsion to shrink both the state and demands upon it, and, critically, an accommodation by the Lib Dems to the Tories’ hatred of the Human Rights Act, and let’s face it, the very idea of human rights.  But it also derives from a secret paper, conceived by Phillips in 2010, to placate his new paymasters in government.  Margaret Prosser who is now acting chair, approved of Phillips’s plan from the beginning and it seems likely that she is going to succeed Phillips when he stands down in September.

It strikes me that it is not only the weakness of the Lib Dems that should alarm those of us who hope for a new commitment to human rights principles.  Prosser is a Labour peer and former trade unionist.  Maybe she is moved by a typically party political sense of realism; but there are times at which it is better to stand and fight for principles, even if a government can ultimately impose its will. Surrender will not only discredit the very idea that an effective EHRC is possible, it removes hope from all the people and communities who need it.  

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