The equality watchdog has provided new fuel for its critics after announcing plans to work with the Poundland retail chain on its disability policies, before withdrawing the announcement and refusing to comment on the story.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had suggested that it had signed a formal agreement with Poundland under section 23 of the Equality Act 2006.
Under section 23, according to the EHRC website, the commission can draw up an action plan as part of a formal agreement with a person or organisation it believes “has committed an unlawful act”.
It stresses that agreeing such an action plan “is not taken as an admission that there has been an unlawful act”.
But Poundland has so far refused to explain what illegal act of disability discrimination the EHRC believes it committed, if any.
A Poundland spokeswoman said the company “places great importance on the wellbeing of all its colleagues and customers”, and added: “We are currently working in partnership with the equality commission to raise awareness of disability in the work place amongst our colleagues and further improve their training in this area.
“This will enable our workforce to better assist their colleagues and customers with disabilities who visit our store.”
The EHRC agreement will see Poundland “roll out a comprehensive training programme” to its staff, to “enable them to develop a fuller understanding of the needs of disabled people”.
But shortly after Disability News Service (DNS) asked Poundland why the EHRC press release was suggesting it had committed an “unlawful act”, a member of the EHRC’s legal team asked DNS if it could withdraw its statement.
The EHRC has now refused to comment on the agreement, referring DNS instead to Poundland’s statement.
An EHRC spokesman confirmed that its press release had now been “withdrawn”, so “the information that has come from Poundland is as much as we can say”.
The EHRC has come under repeated fire from the coalition, which has drastically cut its budget and openly criticised its track record.
In May, the government said it remained “concerned about the quality and timeliness of some of the EHRC’s work”, and warned that – if there had not been sufficient improvement by the autumn of 2013 – it would “seek to implement more substantial reform”, which could see the EHRC scrapped entirely.
13 December 2012