The decision not to reappoint the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s only disabled commissioner has raised fresh concerns over the government’s plans for the watchdog.
Mike Smith was not even interviewed for the chance to be reappointed to the board of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), even though his performance was praised earlier this year in an annual assessment.
The government had decided that the size of the board should be reduced from 14 commissioners to 10, with all of the current commissioners – including Smith – “encouraged to apply”.
Anne McGuire, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said she was “astonished that Mike Smith has not even been considered for interview”.
The decision to replace Smith as the commissioner who leads on disability issues and chairs the EHRC’s disability committee – when his term ends in early December – has heightened concerns about the government’s plans for the watchdog.
The coalition has been highly critical of the EHRC and has spoken of wanting a different focus to its board, with commissioners with more corporate and management experience and less emphasis on those with a background in equality and human rights.
But friends of Smith will point to his 19 years’ experience with PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he worked in company tax and risk management and ended as director of policy.
Smith has expressed concerns that government cuts to the EHRC’s funding may threaten the future of the disability committee, which is undergoing a review that could lead to it being scrapped.
The EHRC is planning to cut staff posts from about 250 to just 150 by the end of 2012, down from as many as 525 people after its launch, and its budget is set to fall to £18 million by 2014-15, down from £62 million in 2010-11.
Campaigners have warned that government cuts and reforms to the EHRC could threaten the commission’s “A” status as a national human rights institution – which gives it important international rights and privileges.
Among his achievements in his three years as commissioner, Smith led work on the EHRC’s widely-praised inquiry into disability-related harassment, Hidden In Plain Sight.
McGuire said he had “led for the EHRC on many disability issues”, while Hidden In Plain Sight was one of the EHRC’s “key” recent reports.
Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, who worked closely with Smith on the inquiry, said he was “very disappointed” with how he was being replaced, and said: “I am full of praise for what he managed to achieve with his report.”
Brookes suggested that Smith had been “targeted” by the government, and said he feared the move was part of coalition plans to “shut down the disability committee” and even scrap the EHRC altogether.
In a statement, Smith said he was “disappointed” at not being re-appointed, but added: “I do not take this outcome personally; I know from my very positive annual assessment as recently as March of this year that my contribution has been recognised and highly valued.”
He said the work of the watchdog was “incredibly important” in “defending equality, combating discrimination, promoting human rights, and ensuring fairness” and that he was “proud and privileged to have played a part in delivering that over the last three years”.
He added: “I believe the principles underpinning a single equalities and human rights body are as relevant now as when the commission was created.
“Never was it more important to act to support everyone in our society who is unfairly disadvantaged.”
The Government Equalities Office (GEO) said the procedure for appointing the commissioners was “exactly the same as any other public appointment procedure”, with recommendations from a panel passed to the new Conservative equalities minister, Maria Miller, for final decisions on who to appoint.
A GEO spokeswoman said she could not comment on why Smith was not shortlisted.
The EHRC has so far failed to comment.
8 November 2012