Government reforms ‘risk turning watchdog into nit-picking factory’


Government plans to reform the equality watchdog risk turning it into a weak and “nit-picking compliance factory”, its chair has warned.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was responding to a Government Equalities Office (GEO) consultation on plans to slash the commission’s budget and reduce its powers, remove funding for its grants programme, and ask the private or voluntary sector to take over its national helpline.

Trevor Phillips, the commission’s chair, said the proposals were a “missed opportunity” to modernise the way equality law works and risked turning the EHRC into an “anonymous, cowed, nit-picking compliance factory, remote from the everyday challenges that face ordinary people”.

The EHRC response suggests that the government intends to cut its budget by more than half from £53m in 2010-11 to just £26m by 2014/15.

It comes just two weeks after MPs and peers pledged to oppose the plans to remove the helpline from the EHRC, with Baroness [Jane] Campbell, Lord [Colin] Low – both disabled crossbench peers – and the Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd all promising to fight the proposal.

In its initial response to the consultation, the EHRC says the government’s proposals will prove expensive and time-consuming and distract it from its own modernisation plans.

The commission warns that the proposals would also threaten its independence – and put at risk its national human rights institution “A” status with the UN – with particular concerns over proposals that would allow the government to impose financial sanctions if the commission is shown to have “mis-spent taxpayers’ money”.

It also warns that outsourcing its helpline would remove “the only expert national source of advice and guidance on equality and human rights issues”.

And it says that scrapping its mediation and conciliation service was likely to lead to more uncertainty and higher costs for public bodies and businesses, with discrimination cases on goods and services more likely to end up in court.

The EHRC says it has settled more than three-quarters of 459 mediation cases without the need for expensive court action.

The commission also says that plans to restrict its duty to promote good relations in society could make it harder to tackle issues such as disability-related harassment.

A government spokeswoman said: “We have noted the commission’s initial response to our consultation, which closes on 15 June. We will publish a full response in the autumn.

“It is vital that we have a strong, effective and independent equalities and human rights body. The proposals being considered are intended to deliver that.”

The GEO consultation ends on 15 June.

25 May 2011