Equality Commission is being hacked to death by the Coalition

Equality is “at the core of Liberal Democrats philosophy”, the party boasts. So why, then, is a Lib Dem minister presiding over the virtual destruction of the quango responsible for enforcing equalities laws?

And is Trevor Phillips, the soon-to-retire chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission,  colluding in the demise of the second equality body he has chaired?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is due to have its’ annual budget slashed in half. Having already suffered a painful downsizing after the Coalition was elected, the Commission is facing life managing with less than a quarter of the cash they had in 2007.

The EHRC will see their annual budget slashed in half, to £26m, but are actually planning to get by on £18m, less than a quarter of the original £70m they enjoyed under Labour. Not so much a tightening of belts, more like a triple amputation.

Critics claim the savage cuts will turn Britain’s prime equalities institution into little more than a glorified think-tank lacking the resources and expertise to tackle institutional discrimination in Britain.

Reports suggest staff reductions will see most black and Asian employees lose their jobs and that the commission – which is responsible for upholding equalities laws – could end up being virtually all-white.

All this is being overseen by the Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone, who is also proposing stripping the Commission of a large swathe of its’ powers.

Lynne Featherstone, minister for equalities

The organisation now finds itself caught in a deadly pincer movement between swingeing budget cuts and the removal of many of its’ powers to hold Britain’s institutions to account.

Ms Featherstone’s planned cull of the EHRC’s powers is presented as a moderning ‘review’ to give a dysfunctional organisation “stronger focus and make it more accountable.”

But Sir Bob Hepple QC, writing the Industrial Law Journal, claims that stripping the Commission of many of its’ key powers and cutting funding amounts to “two steps back.”

The Commission’s “ability to use effectively even its restricted powers will be compromised by severe cuts in its annual budget”, he adds.

Sir Bob highlighted several areas where the Coalition Government plan to strip the EHRC of powers and lessen the “burden” on public authorities to monitor anti-discrimination work:

  • Removing specific duties on public authorities to engage with employees and other stakeholders in framing their equality objectives and in achieving those objectives.
  • Repealing the general duty on the EHRC to encourage and support a society based on freedom from prejudice and discrimination, individual human rights, respect for the dignity… equal opportunity to participate in society and mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing of diversity.
  • Repealing the general duty on the EHRC to work towards the elimination of unlawful discrimination and harassment.
  • Removing the duty on the EHRC to tackle the under-representation of Black people in public life.
  • Removing the duty on the EHRC to promote good relations between communities. This has its’ origins in the 1976 Race Relations Act that asked the Commission for Racial Equality to take this forward.
  • Replacing specific public sector equality duties requiring authorities to race equality scheme to state its’ arrangements for consulting on the likely impact of proposed policies on the promotion of race equality with a general duty.

Featherstone argues that this bonfire of equalities powers is needed to “reduce burdens and bureaucracy on public bodies, moving away from a process-driven approach” championed by Labour.

This ‘modernising’ review was championed by Caron Lindsay on the influential blog Lib Dem Voice, who wrote of Featherstone’s plans:

“Her recommendations 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.”

It is clear the intention of Government is to disable the Commissions’ powers to undertake investigations, limiting them to a body that gently persuades institutions not to discriminate. A sort of PR agency for equality. All carrot and no stick.

The fundamental problem with the no-stick approach is that history tells us there are essentially only two factors have ever led to employers taking action to address race inequality. Straightforward legal challenges or a heightened political climate which demands action – such as in the aftermath of the Lord Scarman and Stephen Lawrence (Macpherson) public inquiries.

It’s either political will and pressure, or a court summons. Nothing else works. The softly-softly approach is merely an early opportunity for public authorities to get it right at the start, not an end in itself.

If the EHRC are to be “valued and respected” by public bodies it will surely be because they are not causing too much trouble.

‘Let us trust public authorities handle equality the best way they see fit’, the Government appears to be saying.

‘They just need occasional guidance from a toothless but well-meaning organisation made up of bland consultants. None of these ‘tribal’ equalities experts who keep threatening to embarrass us.’

Yet local government alone have a long and shameful record of picking and choosing which equalities issues to give regard to while ignoring more ‘uncomfortable’ forms of discrimination.

There is a 50-year history behind the approach to tackling race inequality

The Commission’s ‘hard powers’ are only there to be used when all else fails. It’s a bit like replacing the police with adverts telling us all to be law-abiding.

Labour’s “process-driven approach” was designed for a reason and is informed by 50 years of campaigning for better protection against racism and other forms of discrimination.

From CARD (Campaign Against Racial Discrimination) to the Race Relations Board and then the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), there is a long history of creating bodies to promote equality in public life that we should never forget.

Moving away from a “process-driven approach” requires more than simply scrapping the duties on them to work towards equality. It demands an intellectually-sound alternative model that can make a convincing argument that it will take equality forward, not leave it up to chance or goodwill.

There is a need for a Liberal approach to equalities but radically downsizing the Commission and stripping its’ powers away looks to all the world like a Tory one.

Featherstone has adopted the Tory language of cutting bureaucracy but failed to show how the resulting liberation from red tape will combat discrimination. We are expected to take it on trust.

All the while, this debate carefully avoids taking stock of the extent of unfairness and prejudice in society. Hardly surprising because 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.

Featherstone’s actions speak volumes about the Government’s commitment to equalities. There was precious little in the Coalition Agreement about race equality and even less has been delivered.

All the indicators suggest we are going backwards on disproportionate BAME employment, stop and search, incarceration rates and many other social indicators. Britain is getting less equal.

So 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.

It is if the Lord Scarman inquiry never happened. Scarman was set up 30 years ago after the inner city uprisings of the early 1980s and drew attention to lack of job opportunities for black communities. It heralded a big recruitment push across the public service.

EHRC cuts are rendering Clegg’s Scarman speech meaningless

Three decades later today’s cuts to the EHRC 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.”

Such words now ring hollow as the Coalition preside over the emasculation of the the body whose responsibility it is to bring this about the vision articulated by Mr Clegg.

And it shows that David Cameron’s fine words before the 2010 election – where he promised that ” a Conservative government will tackle the racial barriers in Labour’s Britain” – are not worth the paper they are printed on.

As well as axing many of the equalities ‘duties’ which cover race equality and other traditional strands, the Guardian also suggests that the Coalition will repeal the socio-economic duty:

Featherstone said the government would repeal the obligation to assess whether policies affect the poor, which when introduced by Labour was characterised as “socialism in one clause”.

This country is historically one of the most class-ridden societies with one of the lowest rates of social mobility. The implication that efforts to tackle this scourge amounts to “socialism” shows how far removed ministers are from the reality of unequal Britain.

The Daily Mail has reported that “virtually all of the commission’s employees who are black, ethnic minority or… disabled will lose their jobs.” The Commission are planning to axe 89 of the lowest paid posts, where BAME staff are concentrated.

Frankly, the resulting lack of workplace diversity will undermine the organisations’ moral authority to tackle any other employer in the country for refusing to hire black employees.

According to letter signed by124 commission staff to Baroness Margaret Prosser, a commissioner on the EHRC board, “the newly appointed top layer of management is already exclusively white.”

For a public body with its’ HQ in multicultural London this fact alone is a disgrace. It is certainly in contravention of the spirit of the equalities laws they are supposed to uphold.

There is also also concern that the EHRC have not done adequate Equality Impact Assessments (EIAs) on the likely impact of their cuts, and have also failed to properly assess whether staff cuts will adversely affect some groups more than others.

Steve Hilton: the spirit of his radical Tory approach lives on

And this is the body responsible for ensuring that the rest of Britain’s public services carry out real EIAs on their policies. What example does it set for the rest of the country?

Failure to carry out genuine EIAs where policies or cuts impact disproportionately on different groups can leave an institution open to legal action. Given that the EHRC have so few lawyers left I doubt they will have the resources to take their own bosses to court!

It gets worse. In addition to the disproportionate affect of staff cuts on black staff, lack of proper equalities impact assessments, severe budget reductions and the stripping away of the EHRC’s powers there are two other factors which threaten the future of 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.

I am told this zero-based budget exercise is almost certainly a precursor to even deeper cuts.

The second is 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.

We’ve been here before. The Government of Margaret Thatcher appointed her chums to the board of the old CRE with a mission to destroy the organisation from within. Before Lord Ouseley was appointed even the CRE chairmen were old white Tories who hoped to see the body disbanded.

Yet even Mrs Thatcher didn’t move as far and as fast as the present Coalition Government are.

As well as ridding the board of its’ expertise, there are moves to hire more consultants. This risks diluting the culture of historical corporate knowledge about specific equalities issues that permanent staff possess.

With the Commission vacating its’ central London HQ for a new base on the outskirts of London, managed by an all-white team and with hardly any BAME staff, it will hardly look or feel like an equalities institution.

There has never been much love, in the black community, for the CRE or the present-day EHRC. They are often seen as remote institutions populated by careerists and many fail to see what difference it is making to their lives.

These sentiments ignore the struggle from the 1950s onwards to build strong national organisations that can translate grassroots pain of discrimination into policies that Government should implement to combat the scourge.

Lord Herman Ouseley understood importance of equalities institutions

Diane Abbott MP, Lord Ouseley and others were acutely aware of this when they fought against the abolition of the CRE. They realised the importance of having institutional levers to advance the cause.

To misquote Martin Niemöller, first they came for our organisations and then they came for us. That is the underlining fear that fires campaigners to protect such organisations, even when they have not been performing as well as hoped. A broken shield is better than none at all.

A major reason why savage cuts to the EHRC has not been a bigger issue to date is because the anti-racist movement has already been reduced to rubble. Those groups helped popularise the arguments in favour of keeping the CRE but some are no longer around while the few that are, are much reduced in size and cowed by the need to survive on grant aid.

I still believe that as people learn more about what the Government is doing there will be a growing rebellion against it. I would recommend this Facebook campaign, which is picking up supporters.

Few would argue that all areas of public service need to take their fair share of budget reductions, but to hit this organisation so hard and so fast –  and in so many ways – says a lot about the political priorities of this Government.

Back in 2007 many equalities experts warned Labour that the original EHRC budget £70m of was far too low a figure to combat discrimination across seven different equalities ‘strands’ – black and minority ethnic communities; disabilities; gender; sexuality; age; socio-economic and human rights.

Ms Featherstone recently announced to parliament that the EHRC would be handed £26m which was bad enough, representing a cut of over 5o percent. But now the EHRC have taken the decision to prepare an even lower budget of £18m.

This will no doubt lead to Ms Featherstone coming before parliament in the near future to declare that the EHRC didn’t want, or need the £26m, after all. Presumably because that was far too much cash to tackle inequality in Britain. They are happy to exist on much less. Apparently.

It certainly gets Ms Featherstone off the hook from politically sensitive accusations of ditching a commitment to tackling discrimination.

I mean, how can she be criticised for imposing a cut of £27m (from a budget of £53m for the previous year) when the organisation actually want £8m less than that?

The Government have already agreed to make £10m cuts to the EHRC’s grant programme, which mostly funds the Local Race Equality Councils (REC) network that thought they were protected when the CRE was abolished in 2006.

The proposed 62 percent cut in the commission’s budget actually translates into a 72% cut in staffing, including staff redundancies in Birmingham as its’ discrimination helpline closes. However these figures are before you factor in the likely closure of its’ Manchester office and additional redundancies that may result.

The Guardian reports that “staff numbers will drop to 180 – down from 455 in 2010.”  However insiders believe that number of staff will actually drop closer to 150.

Although most present EHRC staff work across all strands, the remaining 150 staff will amount to just 21 staff per strand; hardly enough to make an impact on Britain’s ingrained inequality let alone carry out its’ core functions.

Trevor Phillips, outgoing EHRC chairman

In fact the EHRC will have 45 fewer staff than the CRE – which dealt with the single strand of race – had before it was scrapped, and 66 less than the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

Almost inevitably along with their much-reduced size will come 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.’

There is a growing suspicion that Trevor Phillips, who retires as EHRC chairman next month, has privately agreed to self-impose even more stringent cuts to his organisation than the figure Ms Featherstone has publicly announced.

The question is whether backroom shenanigans and secret deals are the real driving force behind the cuts, rather than an open and honest assessment of what action is actually needed to tackle discrimination in Britain and how much we can realistically afford to spend on it? Has politicking cleverly disguised a lack of political will in Government to get serious about making this country more equal?

This is not the first time Mr Phillips has faced questions about his stewardship of an equality body. When he was chairman of the old Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) there were many who said he was on a secret mission to wind the body down long before the then Government revealed it would be replaced by the EHRC.

At the time – around 2005/06 – was particular anger that Mr Phillips had slashed the CRE’s legal cases. Today the EHRC body which he took charge of in 2007 appears to be undergoing the same treatment. Like the old CRE, the EHRC has massively scaled down the number of legal cases it is pursing.

Proposed EHRC cuts would reduce the number of in-house lawyers to just eleven. Yet this is the organisation that is supposed to take test cases to strengthen protection against discrimination across seven separate equalities ‘strands’.

The present-day signals from Government about laying off the law and concentrating on gentle persuasion are reminiscent of noises from last Labour Government when Mr Phillips was leading the CRE towards abolition. It is like déjà vu all over again.

The proposed cuts to the EHRC are so deep that United Nations are already threatening to remove the commission’s “A-status” as a national human rights institution, believing it will now be too small to qualify.

The occasion on May this year when Mr Phillips took on the might of the Treasury – releasing a report which showed that George Osborne’s October 2010 budget had failed to comply with equalities legislation – now looks like a last hurrah.

Will a radically-downsized Commission be able, or have the courage, to take on a target as big as the Chancellor of the Exchequer ever again? I fear not.

Quite simply the proposed cut to Britain’s only equalities institution, which possesses powers to enforce equality, are so savage and amounts not so much to death by a thousand cuts as one massive blow with a blunt instrument.

Under pressure: Lady Margaret Prosser

Some Lib Dems claim privately that these cuts are really the work of Tory Home Secretary Theresa May and if it wasn’t for them the Tories would have abolished the EHRC by now. This argument is duplicitous.

The Commission is well on its’ way to being abolished already, only by stealth. If the body survives it is likely to be a hollowed-out pale shadow of itself.

At least if the Tories had come out publicly and proposed axing the EHRC altogether it would have at least prompted a public debate over whether we need a body to guard and enforce anti-discrimination laws and promote equality.

With the exception of the heartless Right wing I am hopeful that most sensible people would agree that victims of discrimination need a body to protects them.

I understand Ms Featherstone is fond of referring to the well-publicised disfunctionality within EHRC and its’ past failure to operate a tight accounting regime.

These were issues a few years ago, but are now red herrings.

The National Audit Office did indeed reject the commissions’ first three accounts and a substantial sum had to be written off as unaccounted for. However better financial monitoring has long been put in place so this is no longer an issue.

As for the in-fighting, this is again in the past… about three years ago to be precise.

The internal rows were entirely about the reappointment – by the then equalities minister Harriet Harman – of her friend Mr Phillips as Commission chairman and his style of leadership.

Several commissioners walked out in protest after ministers gave him another term. To his credit, Mr Phillips adapted his style somewhat, and the structure of the organisation was altered to better reflect the different equalities ‘strands.’

I always felt that the internal rows were somewhat hyped up by the Rightwing press at the time. To continue to regurgitate this episode is scraping the barrel of excuses to justify the present-day cuts and stripping of enforcement powers. 

Labour peer Baroness Margaret Prosser, chair of the EHRC committee who approved proposals, has been feeling the heat from 124 employees, who took the brave step of signing an open letter to her, protesting about the cuts and its’ disproportionately impact on BAME staff.

How this sits with her background as a union activists with a lifetime of defending workers facing the axe is anyone’s guess.

Currently there are two EHRC commissioners with specific responsibility for race equality; Simon Woolley, who also heads Operation Black Vote, and my Lib Dem colleague Baroness Meral Hussein Ece.

I have known both of them for many years and can attest to their principles and sound grasp of the issues. However both will be aware that should public disquiet grow – especially from within BAME communities – they will be under pressure to publicly take a position.

The absence of an effective anti-racist movement to hype-up, or popularise, the predicament of the Commission does not mean the proposed changes will go unnoticed. In the medium to long term it is likely to form a major part of a wider picture about the two ruling parties attitudes to equality and their political will to take effective action.

The EHRC matters in the same way that the old CRE did. It is a measure of whether the Government care. An indication of their appreciation, or not, of the sheer scale of inequality in Britain. And on race, accepting the need to level the playing field for citizens whose families have faced generational injustice. 

Ms Featherstone told the 2010 party conference:

“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.”

My response is simple. If leaders achieve a positive cultural shift then equalities will no longer be seen as a burden. 

That is ultimately why we need an empowered and properly resourced institution to be the protector and safety-net for those who face discrimination. And that is why the attack on the EHRC is so very wrong.

By Lester Holloway


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One thought on “Equality Commission is being hacked to death by the Coalition

  1. Pingback: Why Do Conservatives Despise Equality? @ Casper Denck

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