Lynne Featherstone to reform Equality and Human Rights Commission

The Guardian reported on Tuesday that Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone is to reform the Equality and  Human Rights Commission, cutting its budget and removing some of its responsibilities, most notably its obligation to assess how Government policies would affect the poorest.

Now, if ever there was a quango in need of reform, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission is that body. Dysfunctional seems to be the best word to describe the EHRC. Wasteful would be another. For three years running, the National Audit Office qualified its accounts. Last year was the first year since its formation in 2007 when it managed to achieve an unqualified audit opinion. However the NAO expressed concern about what would happen once the interim staff, who had turned the lack of financial control around, left.

The EHRC exhibited an astonishing lack of financial control and wrote off £874,000 of losses without proper approval. They  could not provide evidence that grants it had given were in order and simply did not have sufficient financial control measures in place. In 2007, it re-engaged staff it had made redundant again without proper authority and without making them repay their severance pay at a total cost of almost £1 million. Have a read of the full audit reports to see the extent of the incompetence.

It strikes me that reforming this organisation is the responsible thing to do. The Guardian might like to paint it as a Tory inspired ideological bashing, but Lynne Featherstone has a long record of championing equalities issues and extensive working knowledge of the EHRC’s history. Her recommendations therefore have a huge amount of credibility and authority behind them. The Tories, in contrast, would have been most likely to have abolished it completely. They don’t really get equalities or human rights as has been all too clear.

Lynne Featherstone, on the other hand, as a Liberal Democrat, instinctively understands the importance of having a watchdog to make sure that we adhere to equalities legislation. The phrase she often uses about what she wants that body to be is “valued and respected national institution.” The leviathan of waste and pettiness bequeathed by Labour was clearly not fit for purpose and she’s had to trim it down and ensure it focuses on what it was intended to do.

As regards the repeal of the socio economic duty, we’ve known about this since 2010. It seems very out of place in this day and age to consider social class as a part of every Government policy. It’s the sort of typically tokenistic and bureaucratic measure that Labour loved but actually achieved very little. Lynne spoke about this in her speech to our Autumn conference in 2010:

What Labour did was turn equalities into a burden. It became a byword for bureaucracy and red-tape. Less about liberation and more about frustration. And if ticking boxes and filling out forms led to equality, then Britain would be a utopia of fairness and optimism. But it doesn’t. And it isn’t. What Britain needs is a seismic cultural shift in the way people view and relate to each other. Let’s be honest – people are still not free from the barriers of their place of birth, their sexuality, the colour of their skin. But this will not be changed with lazy, short term thinking or shallow, headline-grabbing laws.

Knowing Lynne and her track record on equality issues, I am in no doubt that the changes she’s making to the EHRC will make it a better organisation, better suited to helping the cause of equality. As Lynne said herself the other day:

Since its creation the Equality and Human Rights Commission has struggled to deliver across its remit and has not demonstrated good value for money.

‘Our reforms will provide it with a stronger focus and make it more accountable, helping it become the valued and respected national institution it was always intended to be.

 

* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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16 Comments

  • James Sandbach 17th May '12 - 3:36pm

    The EHRC’s underperformance has to do with it’s leadership and management, and nothing to do with its legal duties, function and mandate, all of which will be substantially weakened by these reforms – including loosing all it’s casework function, The Equality Act stays (just! probably thanks to Lynne), but a lot of it’s key provisions are being salami sliced away or watered down substantially. The combined context of these reforms plus loss of legal aid, and the introduction of many more legal hurdles and fees to get redress in tribunals (look out for a few more of the barking Beecroft proposals on employment rights tomorrow), the scales are again tipping against people who have been unjustly treated, Could post in more in detail on all of this – but please don’t believe on face value the spin from Lynne’s bit of the Home Office that this is all about making equalities protection more effective. Cumulativelty the whole equalities and human rights regime will be rendered less effective – a fig leaf body and law ripe for further defenestration.

  • Toby MacDonnell 17th May '12 - 3:39pm

    Hats off to her on the speech: she’s got the problem right on the nose.

  • Removing Trevor Philips as chair is long overdue. No-one who advocated the removal of employment rights from people who join a legal (if objectionable) political party should be in charge of a body responsible for human rights.

    I do think the EHRC should be broken up. The position of defender of human rights and advocate for equality are, at times, contradictory. Should the EHRC be a defender of the rights of the EDL or NF to hold protest marches, or opposing them on racial equality grounds?

    And its financial management has been laughable.

    But like James says – why is any of that a rationale for removing or reducing the powers of the body to act. If we don’t believe that the body should be able to act in defence of rights set out in particular legislation then what does that say about our support for those particular rights.

  • John Richardson 18th May '12 - 8:43am

    The cutbacks have hit women more and the EHRC is supposed to stop the government from discriminating in this way.

    But what is the government supposed to do about that? As I understand it the biggest impact to women is the public sector pension reforms. Would we advocate cutting more from men’s pensions than women’s pensions so that the gender cash totals are the same?

  • Dave Eastham 18th May '12 - 9:22am

    Surely it is sensible to remember the genesis of the EHRC as an amalgam of the previous several specialist bodies into the amorphous single combined body?. Losing resources along the way (“efficiency” savings) and ability to deal with the challenges in the various areas covered. Yes the “Equalities Industry” sort of evolved as a separate collection organisations set up to deal with things as they arose, or more accurately, as society as a whole became aware, or another piece of legislation was enacted. The whole merger process to form the EHRC was botched by the Government of the day and it, as an organisation, has been spectacularly dysfunctional and riven with conflicts of interest ever since,. As has already been pointed out. That does not mean to say though, that the solution is a series of “reforms” which effectively neuters equalities further, just because the Government of the day is irritated by (deserved) criticism. The Lib Dems should be wary of becoming the “fig” leaf yet again, for a series of changes dressed up as “reforms”, which is essentially the crude implementation of the nastier bits of Tory ideology.

  • As someone has already pointed out the EHRC took over the roles and legal duties of the Disability Rights Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission. The Equality Act 2010 merged the powers and functions of the Race Relations Act, the Disability Discrimination Act and, the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act. Do you really think people would be praising Lynne Featherstone is she was attacking those powers or those organisations? The EHRC is the statutory body responsible for enforcing those provisions and has strong investigatory powers that reach into public and private bodies and Government Departments. That is why the Government want to dismantle the EHRC and the Equality Act. Think about the outstanding work done in the past by the CRE into prisons (Mubarek Inquiry) and the police. Ask Lord Dholakia and Lord Ouseley how these powers were put to good effect when they were with the CRE. Staff at the EHRC have been campaigning for over a year to save the EHRC but not in its current form. We have pointed out repeatedly the management problems and the over reliance on consultants many who channel their ill-gotten gains via service companies to avoid paying tax (see Exaro News/David Hencke for more info). At one point the EHRC was spending £9 million a year on consultants, which was a third of its staff budget, on 40 consultants – that was 10% of its total staff. And Lynne did nothing about it. And we are still spending millions on consultants despite the overwhelming evidence that they have made a dogs dinner or running the EHRC. This is not surprising seeing as none of these consultants have a background in equalities or human rights. So instead of tackling the poor management and problems with the Board, Lynne is happy to go along with the Conservative agenda of dismantling the EHRC and the Equality Act, including a proposal to review the public equality duty which was already watered down last year. This is the duty that was introduced as a direct response to the MacPherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and it was a ground breaking provision which simply wanted civil servants and policy makers to consider race when making decisions. The civil servants have always hated it and cannot believe their luck right now. The budget cuts being imposed on the EHRC mean that by the end of this year there will be 150 people employed in Great Britain to enforce equality law and promote human rights with no money to do casework or provide support to the thousands of people who used to phone our helpline each year. And the coup de grace of Lynne’s proposals published this week – a threat to close the EHRC if it doesn’t do better within a year. How do you do better when you have lost almost all your staff, your budget and your powers? Lynne Featherstone is a disgrace and should hang her head in shame. PCS and Unite will fight for EHRC staff and the Equality Act until it draws its last breath and we will all remember the role played by Lynne Featherstone who championed the Equality Act in Parliament and criticised the Labour Government for not doing more.

  • Martin Frost 18th May '12 - 12:17pm

    As a former Liberal Democrat who once actively campaigned for the party, I am really shocked by the tone of Caron Lindsay’s article. It offers a highly selective view of what has been going on at the EHRC. Firstly, the EHRC was full of interim staff throughout the period when the mistakes were made leading to the qualification of the EHRC accounts and the specific reference to the EHRC grants is misleading and offensive to the hard working team who administered the programme. Remember they can’t talk back. In any case, most of the cuts in staffing being brought about by Lynne’s reforms are being made to those in front line roles on comparatively low pay.

    The cuts to the EHRC go well beyond anything required by the Treasury. Lynne’s medicine is going to kill the patient. , Why does Lynne now oppose powers given to the EHRC that she was previously in favour of? (Before she came into Government that is)

    The reforms to equality and human rights legislation are going to hit discriminated groups badly. All of the money previously ring fenced by the EHRC for local equalities and human rights groups and for organisations providing direct support to the victims of discrimination has gone. Sorry Lynne but this is a shocking measure for a Liberal Democrat to have supported let alone implemented.

    The Liberal Democrats have not saved the EHRC but weakened it terminally. You have no idea what a disillusioning experience is it to see articles like this appearing from people I once regarded as kindred spirits.

    As for the proposed legislative changes, a detailed examination is likely to show that race and community relations work will be virtually destroyed. Lets face it, the Liberal Democrat record on these issues (Tower Hamlets, no BME MPs) is hardly exemplary.

    Liberal Democrats stop compromising on your core values. You are trying to make excuses to disguise the magnitude of the damage being done to an organisation whose predecessor bodies leading Liberal Democrat figures helped to set up.

  • Dr, Francis Knight 18th May '12 - 5:57pm

    The local election results should be a wake up call for fellow liberals. We have always stood for equalities and as member’s we should not be distracted from this.

    I don’t know what value or influence this blog will have. But nevertheless, having seen the proposals to reform the EHRC I am amazed on how out of touch Lynne really is on this. I can only come to a conclusion that they have stopped reading newspapers or even listening to the news……the real problems as seen in the public lens is the money being spent on consultants…Lynne, can you read the Times (5 Feb 2012 ) or watch news night. For ease here is the link http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01h7mqm/Newsnight_02_05_2012/

  • Stuart Mitchell 18th May '12 - 7:07pm

    The NAO report you link to makes it clear that the EHRC’s problems were largely the result of having too few staff. So Lynne Featherstone’s plan to get rid of 60% of the staff doesn’t seem like an obvious way of making the commission operate more effectively.

    “It seems very out of place in this day and age to consider social class as a part of every Government policy.”

    Sad to see Lib Dems saying things like that. In my local paper yesterday there was an eye-opening map of youth unemployment levels by ward in my area. While leafy Tory (and L:ib Dem) wards enjoy youth unemployment rates of just 2 or 3%, the most deprived ward has youth unemployment running at 18%. It isn’t concern about such disparity which is “out of place in this day and age”; it’s the fact that such disparities still exist.

  • Gosh, you drop in for a dose of good old fashioned liberalism and what do you get these days? here, a shot at the EHRC, elsewhere attacks on health & safety.

    The UK’s already got the Tories, UKIP, the Sun and the Daily Fail – pl could I just have the lib dems back ?

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