Equalities and Human Rights Commission fails to get its accounts right for third time in a row

The news this week that for the third year in a row there are huge problems with financial control at the Equalities and Human Rights Commission raises questions not only about the future of its senior management but also about the paucity of political debate over its future.

There have only been three sets of annual accounts since the EHRC was formed – and each time the National Audit Office has refused to approve them so deep are the problems with the EHRC’s financial (non-)control.

It’s a perfect record: three sets of accounts, three sets of problems:

In 2008, a year after the EHRC was formed, the NAO qualified its accounts after it appeared that jobs had been given to members of a predecessor organisation run by its chair Trevor Phillips without the appropriate processes being followed. Last year the 2009 accounts were qualified after irregularities were discovered in payments totalling £1.1m to consultants, in procurement and in grants to small organisations.

But [the NAO’s] verdict on the 2009-10 accounts questions spending of around £2m. Staff were given pay rises that were not authorised by its parent Whitehall department, the Government Equalities Office. … The commission had no centralised procurement processes and relatively junior staff were allowed to sign off large contracts without approval. [The Guardian]

Three years of such financial mismanagement has not been sufficient to see its chief Trevor Phillips either resign or be sacked.

However, it also highlights the paucity of the debate over its future which can be summarised as:

Government: EHRC isn’t providing value for money, so we’re going to cut its funds
Labour and others on the left: Appalling! Any cut is an attack on the least well off!

In that respect, far too many Labour politicians and others reflect the worst sort of mistakes that far too many pro-Europeans (including, yes, some Liberal Democrats) make over Europe. That is to be so blindly enthusiastic as to turn a blind eye to financial mismanagement and repeatedly pass on making even the most tepid expressions of mild concern that money is not being used quite as well as it might.

In fact, I had a look through recent comments from Labour MPs about the EHRC and the current budget plans and I couldn’t find even one expressing the slightest caveat that maybe it needed control its money a little better whilst also arguing against cuts to its budget.

I’m sure (well, I sincerely hope) there are some that I’ve missed as I didn’t do a check of every single public statement, but the overall pattern was pretty clear.

Failing to look after public money three years in a row was no reason for serious complaint.

They’re wrong. It is.

The EHRC has repeatedly failed to use our money properly to help those it is meant to serve. Blowing over £800,000 on a website that didn’t work is but one of many examples of its financial failures.

Genuine concern for helping victims of discrimination doesn’t mean simply judging the government’s commitment by the level of budgets. Big budgets badly spent don’t make for good government or effective action against discrimination.

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6 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 25th Jun '11 - 12:09pm

    Difficult to imagine any public company where the Chair would survive having the accounts qualified three years running, let alone having 6 members of the Board resign:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/mar/15/trevor-phillips-equality-commission-blamed?INTCMP=SRCH

    Of course we wouldn’t expect Labour to be concerned about this sort of thing but the Coalition should take action immediately.

  • Yes the apparent, (no I’m being too generous, it is probably mismanagement) financial mismanagement at the EHRC is appalling and does need to be addressed. That however is a mere smoke screen to the real issues behind this. It should not be forgotten that the EHRC is a forced amalgam of all the equalities organisations by the previous Government into one mishmash lash up of a body, that took no account of previous histories that brought the different bodies into being and their often very different ways of working and traditions. That is not to say that there was no room for improvement in all of them. At the time there was a suspicion that the real agenda was simply financial cuts and the muzzling of some often very critical voices over equalities issues, of the then government and was merely a step on the “roadmap” to abolition. The current consultation document on the future of the organisation has just closed but it’s proposals (produced essentially by a firm of expensive management consultants by the way – a good use of public money?), proposes massive staffing reductions and a change of emphasis of the organisation that turns it into virtually a “think tank”/quango.
    The real issue of what is happening to the equalities agenda in this country, is ill served by articles on Lib Dem Voice that essentially concentrates on the alleged failures of the management skills of an individual “close” to the Labour Party. It is not our job as the “junior” partners in a coalition government to act as the fall guys in all of the nasty stuff our Tory colleagues are trying to foist on the country (Tuition fees?, NHS “reform”? – not solved by the “listening” debate by the way). I thought we went into coalition to moderate all this stuff, not act as cheers leaders for it
    Declaration of interest: Neither myself or any of my family are, or have been in the past been, employees of any equalities body. I was however, for a short time in the 1990’s chair of a trade union committee that had members from various equalities bodies as members

  • The real problem is an over reliance on consultants, Nearly £30m was spent on consultants who designed the first EHRC Organisational Design, including commissioning the original website (see Public Accounts Select Committee report). Currently the EHRC is spending £6m a year on consultants, including the Finance Director. Check http://www.data.gov.uk And thats for less than 40 people who are accounting for 30% of the total EHRC salary bill! And now more consultants are being hired on a daily basis to design a new Organisational Design and sack the staff on modest public sector salaries.
    Of course there is no political will to tackle this disgraceful waste of tax payers money throughout the public sector, mostly because many politicians hope to join the gravy train some time in the future.

  • Mark Park makes very relevant points. However those parts of the EHRC organisation that have caused these financial difficulties are set to be preserved by the Government Equalities Office (led by a Liberal Democrat Minister). Big spends on Europe and International work, the continued commissioning/contracting out of equalities policy work (that could be better and more efficiently handled in house), huge spends on research etc. Nothing on race of course.

    How will the remaining work be funded now that the EHRC budget is to be drastically slashed?

    Mostly through selective redundances for those working in casework (dealing with complaints of discrimination), voluntary sector outreach (through the loss of regional teams), helpline specialists (providing direct advice to the public), and the loss of the funding to struggling equalities groups across the country. Whilst, the proliferation of Director level posts at the EHRC continues unabated.

    The EHRC was modelled in the image of its Chair and this is still the case. The EHRC Board want these cuts and broadly support the changes being proposed. It is the equality stakeholders and the victims of discrimination who are going to pay the price.

    Lib Dems should focus on what the EHRC needs to do and the evidence to date is that they are missing the mark. There have been a lot of grass roots responses to the GEO consultation on the future role of the EHRC. I suggest Lynne Featherstone reads them instead of prioritising measures such as the watering down to nothing of the public sector equality duties (what a tribute to Stephen Lawrence). As a Liberal Democrat, please explain why the Party appears more interested in what the EHRC spends than what it actually does?

    Yes, savings can be made but they are not being targeted in the right areas. As things stand, I am not sure that Lib Dems care any more about equality than the Tories. Please convince me otherwsie.

    John.

  • Lesley Taylor 26th Jun '11 - 11:54pm

    These are very disturbing comments indeed! As a staunch Liberal supporter, I sincerely hope that fellow Liberals will take notice of these comments and ensure that the EHRC has a grass root impact on the communities that our forefathers have struggled to build over the centuries.

    On value for money, it is very important for a NDPB to demonstrate this and the EHRC is no exception. However, I agree the future direction of the EHRC as proposed by the consultants of the EHRC will lead to more expense and A very crude ‘consultant culture’ in the making.

    Accounts being qualified three times is outrageous, like any organisation in this situation the liability of this has to be fixed and someone in the EHRC has take responsibility. This needs to start from the top and the heavily paid consultants which Dave refers to.

    Let’s have real equality and transparency.

  • MissCepasjuste 27th Jun '11 - 11:57am

    Ireland, France, the UK. Unfortunately, it seems that Governments in several EU countries do not see equality or human rights as priorities anymore. The first step is to regroup organisations dealing with different types of inequalities into ‘a SUPER [inefficient] one’ then cut its fundings for one reason or another.

    The fact that the chair of the EHRC stays in charge despite board members resigning or despite having the EHRC accounts not signed off by the National Audit Office three years running might be a indicator that there is something more sinister going on here…

    Are we witnessing a radicalisation of Europe? After all, we have to sort out this financial crisis, right! That’s the most important thing. We cannot tax the rich because they might go and spend their money somewhere else, right! So, we’ll have to take from the poors, sorry. The disabled people who will not no longer receive fundings to continue to stay independent and work, the lone mothers whose child benefits have been cut and surely, there is no more racism to tackle, right!

    Anyway, at the end of the day, like usual the people in power will respond that it’s not their fault if we are in this mess (together!), it’s the other’s fault and therefore everything is unfortunate but c’est la vie!’ It’s scary and quite frankly not good enough. It is no longer a matter of whose fault it is (we are not in primary school anymore or are we?), it’s time to move on and actually design and implement policies which do not mean that people, particularly the most vulnerables, see their rights and essential benefits taken out from them. And we need efficient watchdogs to ensure this happens, not think-tank type quangos which is what the EHRC proposal for the future seems to be about. Now, getting rid of an expensive and seemingly inefficient senior management structure might be a start…

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