Government plans to slash the funding and powers of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and weaken equality laws have been condemned by disabled union activists who work for the watchdog.
EHRC union members are now set to continue strike action to defend their jobs and the services the commission provides.
This week’s TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference was debating an emergency motion on the government’s equality policies two weeks after the coalition confirmed plans to scrap some of the EHRC’s key duties, and slash its budget by more than half from £55m in 2010-11 to just £26m by 2014-15.
The EHRC has also had its funding removed for its grants programme, while the private or voluntary sector will take over its national helpline.
Disability News Service (DNS) revealed two weeks ago that the cuts could put the future of the EHRC’s specialist disability committee – and its sole disabled commissioner – at risk.
The government also alarmed disabled activists by announcing a review of the operation of the public sector equality duty, introduced under the Equality Act, which plays a key role in ensuring public bodies do not discriminate against disabled people.
Laura Ingram, a disabled Public and Commercial Services Union member who works on the EHRC helpline, told this week’s conference that the Equality Act and its enforcement were “more important than ever” because disabled people and other minority groups were “suffering the disproportional effects of this government’s cuts”.
She said the budget cuts and the loss of 70 per cent of the commission’s expert staff raised a question of whether it would be able to fulfil its core duties.
The EHRC’s mediation service – which helped discrimination victims resolve disputes – has already stopped work, while the commission’s ability to “support cases which could extend the reach of equality law will be drastically reduced”.
Ingram said that with the government’s £350 million cuts to legal aid, and councils slashing funding for voluntary organisations, it was “hard to understand where victims of discrimination will seek advice and legal representation”.
She said that 45 per cent of calls to the helpline related to disability issues, and added: “I believe as a disabled person working on the helpline advising discrimination victims, that the protections provided by the Equality Act, enforced by the commission, protect our basic rights and freedoms.”
Disabled activist Richard Rieser, a National Union of Teachers delegate, said: “If the EHRC is weakened, if the legislation is weakened, it affects the terms and conditions of every single person working in this country. It is a charter for discrimination for every employer.”
Ingram told DNS afterwards that the level of fear among EHRC staff about the cuts was “very, very real”. She said a third of helpline staff were disabled people.
She said the removal of the helpline would prevent information being fed through into the commission’s legal and policy departments.
Ingram added: “Where are people going to go? Who is going to have this specialist knowledge?”
31 May 2012