Fears over government links as equality watchdog launches welfare probe

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The equality watchdog is facing concerns over links between the government and two of its leading figures as it prepares to investigate whether Tory welfare reforms have breached the human rights of disabled people.

Last week, Disability News Service (DNS) revealed that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was to examine the impact of changes to the welfare system on independent living and poverty.

The announcement was included in the watchdog’s new business plan for 2016-17 which was published by EHRC last week without any publicity.

But concerns have now been raised about the impartiality of two key figures in the commission, who are both likely to play a key role in the inquiry.

Disability Rights UK (DR UK) has come forward to raise concerns over the voting record of Lord [Chris] Holmes (pictured), the watchdog’s disability commissioner and a Conservative peer, who voted in the House of Lords in favour of those welfare reforms.

But there are also concerns over David Isaac, the lawyer the government has chosen to take over as the commission’s new chair.

Isaac, a former chair of the gay rights charity Stonewall, is a partner in law firm Pinsent Masons, and specialises in providing advice on “major public and private sector UK and global commercial and outsourcing projects”.

His own profile on the firm’s website states that he “leads teams of lawyers on major projects” for, among others, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

But Pinsent Masons this week refused to say which outsourcing projects Isaac has worked on for DWP, leading to the possibility that he could have been involved in some of the reforms his own watchdog will now be investigating.

Sue Bott, DR UK’s deputy chief executive, said Lord Holmes had voted in favour of the government’s welfare reforms, including cutting payments by £30 a week for new employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants placed in the work-related activity group.

She said: “He is solidly in favour of the ESA cuts, he is solidly in favour of the cuts to PIP [that were later withdrawn by the government]and every other cut to disabled people’s income in recent time.”

But she said these were measures the commission would be investigating as part of its probe into the human rights impact of the government’s welfare reforms, with Lord Holmes likely to take a lead role.

She believes EHRC was pressured into carrying out the inquiry by the work of the House of Lords Equality Act 2010 and disability committee, which concluded last month that government spending cuts were having “a hugely adverse effect on disabled people”.

Bott said: “We are concerned about the voting record of Lord Holmes because it is straight down the line voting for the government and we wonder therefore how disabled people are to have confidence in the inquiry whilst Lord Holmes has his position as a commissioner and chair of the EHRC’s disability committee.”

She pointed out that other Conservative peers had voted against the government or abstained from votes on the welfare reforms.

She said: “We think Lord Holmes has some questions to answer as to what his position is. I think that he needs to make his position clear so that it is all upfront and transparent.”

Asked whether she would be concerned if Lord Holmes played a role in the investigation, she said: “I think he should consider his position and whether he feels able to lead such an inquiry, given that he is so clearly in favour of everything the government has done to date.”

Asked whether she also had concerns about Isaac, she said: “It is important that disabled people have confidence in what the EHRC is doing and that there is clear independence and leadership.”

EHRC plans to commission an assessment to “determine how changes to the welfare system have affected equality of opportunity and the human rights of people who share certain protected characteristics”.

It also says in its business plan that it is “not clear whether the government’s reforms to tax, welfare and public spending have taken into account the cumulative impact of these changes on the standard of living of disabled people”.

Asked about the impartiality of Lord Holmes and David Isaac, an EHRC spokesman said in a statement: “We have an ambitious programme of work to tackle discrimination and promote equality of opportunity based on comprehensive evidence about the barriers and unfairness faced by disabled people.

“The fact our business plan includes these priorities underlines that we are fully independent, and we will show neither fear nor favour in how we do our work.

“We have rigorous processes in place to avoid any conflicts of interest. Commissioners are required to comply with the principles of public life [first set out by Lord Nolan in 1995] and our code of conduct, with a register of interests publicly available.

“The strength of our board comes from the diverse range of professional skills, experience, personal qualities and perspectives our commissioners bring to bear on our important work.”

A Pinsent Masons spokesman said that the company’s “professional obligations governing client confidentiality mean we are unable to comment”.

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