Killing the lame goose: equality in Britain needs to be strengthened not cut

The government is cutting back the UK's equality commission but what needs to be saved is not its budget but the role it should be playing
Stuart Weir
14 October 2010

Just as there is more than one way of killing a goose, Francis Maude and his colleagues are perfecting ways of of neutralising quangos they do not like without incurring the opprobrium of actually wielding the final axe.The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a case in point. It is being so well plucked it is unlikely ever again to lay its golden eggs equality, even if it manages the occasional honk.

Trevor Phillips who heads it, and his commissioners were already cooperating by pulling away at their wings. Now they have agreed to make cuts of around 55 per cent to the EHRC budget (15 per cent announced following the June budget plus a further 40 per cent in the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review). The budget of the EHRC was £70 million just two years ago. It was cut to £53 million earlier this year.  A 40 per cent further cut would leave it with a budget of £32 million. At a stroke this risks wrecking 30 years of equalities work in the UK.

Cuts of this scale will leave the EHRC unable to enforce its public sector equality duties and equality law, which will affect all workers and communities, particularly those in vulnerable groups.  They are also likely to reduce the EHRC's advice services and its work with communities - embedding equalities locally – to the bone. Plans to outsource frontline services will almost certainly break a vital link to the public, losing access to crucial evidence of emerging issues and leaving the commission isolated and distant from people's daily concerns and problems at a time when the deficit reduction strategy will exacerbate them. 

The Commission needs to do more not less. It recently published its first 'Triennial Review' on How Fair is Britain? it concludes that the move towards equal pay is "grinding to a halt".  So what then has  been done since it discovered, for example, a 47 per cent pay differential in the financial sector?  You could ask a similar question about the apparent absence of any follow-up on its March report on migrant workers in our meat packaging industry which found widespread evidence of racist abuse, both physical and verbal. Yet as I read it, the Equality Act 2006 empowers the EHRC to take enforcement action on the back of formal inquiries. 

It seems that the Commission has retreated to the common failing of other regulatory bodies, choosing to take the low road of voluntary persuasion rather than the high road of enforcement. Meanwhile on the BBC's Today Programme, instead on insisting on the evidence of discrimination and unequal outcomes established bythe Commission report, which was supposed to  be the point of his appearance, Phillips allowed himself to be seduced into a quasi-philosophical discussion on "fairness" with the egregious John Humphrys. 

Mind you, he did demur the once in the  midst of Humphrys's relentless insistence that hard-working people do  get on in our unequal society.  Humphrys described Philips as an "Old leftie", and Philips went along with the increasingly matey ethic of the programme, responded "Leftie".  Good to know he can stick up for youthful looks, shame about the Commission.

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