Is the Equality and Human Rights Commission still fit for purpose?
Photography by Alex Skopje
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has a mission to protect our rights of equality and human dignity but was described in parliament as ‘unfit for purpose’ by Lord Lester, prominent human rights lawyer who spent 30 years fighting for a Human Rights Act and who wrote the Race Rights Act. Its own employees accuse it of being unfair and inhuman.
Following a 25 per cent cut to its budget by the government in November, the commission decided to restructure by forcing 24 of its lower-paid staff into compulsory redundancy and refused to consider alternative ways to implement the cuts, such as reducing the cost of highly-paid consultants.
According to the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) and Unite union members, almost £1.2 million were paid to only eight consultants in 2015.
The first notices were to be issued on Decemeber 1. On February 9, the commission emailed compulsory redundancy notices to 10 of its staff giving them 24 hours to clear their desks and offering six months’ pay in lieu of notice.
In Birmingham, all other EHRC employees were told not to attend work on the day their colleagues were due to leave which meant that the sacked workers had to go into an empty office to clear their desks, accompanied only by two PCS full-time officials.
"We don't believe that compulsory redundancies are necessary and, obviously, we wouldn't be in dispute if we thought it was a fair process or a justifiable process," said Paul Azek, union member and Vice Chair of the United Nations Association, Westminster.
"Their own equality impact assessment has indicated that the way in which this is implemented is particularly affecting ethnic minority staff, disabled staff, older staff and also trade union members," said Union Representative and Programme Manager Rebecca Thomas.
A spokesperson for the EHRC denied the alleged sacking by email and gave the following statement:
"It is untrue to say staff have been sacked by email. Face to face meetings have taken place over recent weeks to notify them when redundancy letters would be issued.
"Like every public sector organisation we have had cuts imposed on us and it is with great sadness that we have to issue redundancy notices. We regret having to do this but have made sure the process has been fair, robust and transparent."
The commission's new structure means fewer caseworkers on the ground to support victims of discrimination and the closure of offices in Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh and Newcastle which could threaten the commission’s ‘A’ status as a human rights institution.
The EHRC restructuring process required an expression of interest stage where the commission’s employees had to put on paper why they wanted to apply for certain jobs and why they thought they would be good at them.
“Of the ethnic minority staff who applied, I think it was 28 per cent were successful compared to 62 per cent of white staff so there’s a very clear race disparity going on and the figures are not quite as stark for disabled, older or trade union members but there is very clearly a disparity,” said Ms Thomas.
A commission employee, who preferred to remain anonymous, claimed that at its inception, the commission had a very strong ethnic minority workforce which has been dwindling year after year.
"At the moment, based on what they’re proposing, there’s going to be no black people at director level from what I understand. There’s going to be probably two black people left at level 5 and then what remains is in the admin grades,” he added.
The implications are that some of the rising issues such as hate crime and an increase in hate speech will not be addressed properly, if at all.
“By reducing staff numbers, by reducing the amount of money we have available in the budget, that means we’re not going to be as effective at doing our job and that means yet again the people of Britain are going to get a worse deal in terms of discrimination issues and human rights breaches.
"And you have to consider this as part of the broader spectrum of attacks on access to justice and the fact that there were cuts to legal aid, there are tribunal fees. We’ve already seen a massive drop in the number of discrimination cases that are taken to employment tribunal," said Ms Thomas.
Figure 1: Number of employment tribunal claims, including multiple claims.
Source: Ministry of Justice
The EHRC is a statutory body that was set up under the Equality Act 2006. Its remit is to enforce equality legislation. It is also a national human rights body which means it has to monitor the government’s compliance with various international human rights treaties.
“But in terms of the bigger picture from a government perspective is to render us toothless, because they don’t want to be held to account. They don’t want people to be enforcing the equality legislation. They don’t want to be held to account with regards to their compliance to the international human rights treaties and they don’t see the need for an equalities' body,” said Ms Thomas.
Several attempts were made to contact the EHRC dating back to November 2016 and all allegations were brought to the commission's attention. The commission is yet to respond.