The government has published “radical” plans to reduce the duties and responsibilities of the equality watchdog.
In its latest attack on the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the government said its performance had been “weak” and it had struggled to provide value for money since its launch in 2007.
The plans were published as the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU) announced it was balloting its EHRC members on possible industrial action over cuts that could reduce staff from 416 posts to just 200.
The PCSU said such cuts could put the EHRC’s status as a United Nations-accredited national human rights institution at risk, although the EHRC said this was “absolute nonsense” as it would still be the best-funded of any international human rights institution.
The EHRC’s budget for 2010/11 appears to have been cut from about £62 million to £53 million, and is set to fall to £45 million in 2011/12.
Reports have suggested it will be slashed to just £22.5 million by 2015. An EHRC spokeswoman said this figure was “completely speculative” but made clear the cut in its budget was “ultimately being imposed on us” by the government.
Mark Serwotka, PCSU’s general secretary, said: “If these planned cuts go through, the EHRC will be rendered toothless and we believe it will be irreparably damaged in the eyes of its international peers.”
The EHRC strongly disputed the union’s claims, although it accepted it would probably have to fund fewer legal cases.
Launching a consultation on its “radical reforms”, the Government Equalities Office (GEO) said it would stop funding the EHRC’s grants programme, and commission the private or voluntary sector to take over responsibility for its national helpline.
The GEO said it would “not tolerate poor performance” and threatened to fine the EHRC if it misspent “taxpayers’ money”.
It also announced plans to repeal the EHRC’s “general duty” to act in a way that “promotes good relations” in society, because it creates “unrealistic expectations about what an equality regulator and national human rights institution can achieve”.
The GEO also wants to “revise” the EHRC’s “particular” duties on equality and diversity, including its duty to “promote understanding” of their importance.
The GEO said it wanted to focus the EHRC’s work on its “core functions” while “stopping activities that go beyond its core role, particularly where those activities could be done better and more cost-effectively by other bodies”.
Trevor Phillips, the EHRC’s chair, said it was “too soon” to comment on the proposals in detail, but the planned removal of its “good relations mandate may prevent us from being able to do many practical things at a time when community relations are under particular strain”.
The EHRC insisted that the “good relations” proposals would have no impact on its inquiry into disability-related harassment, or future work around disability hate crime.
The GEO’s consultation will close on 15 June.
23 March 2011