Cuts and reforms to EHRC put disability committee’s future in doubt


Cuts to the funding and responsibilities of the equality watchdog could mean that its specialist disability committee is under threat, its disabled commissioner has warned.

Theresa May, the Conservative home secretary and minister for women and equality, this week confirmed plans to scrap some of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC’s) key duties, and slash its budget by more than half from £55m in 2010-11 to just £26m by 2014-15.

May also announced that the replacement for the EHRC’s outgoing chair, Trevor Phillips, would only be employed on a part-time basis.

And she said the government would conduct a “comprehensive review” of the EHRC’s budget, and reduce the number of its commissioners.

In a response this week to last year’s consultation on the EHRC’s future, the government says that it remains “concerned about the quality and timeliness of some of the EHRC’s work”.

And it warns that – if the EHRC has not improved sufficiently by the autumn of 2013 – it will “seek to implement more substantial reform”, which could see “some functions being done elsewhere” or the EHRC even being scrapped entirely, “splitting its responsibilities across new or existing bodies”.

Mike Smith, the EHRC’s only disabled commissioner, warned that the cuts threaten the future of the commission’s vital disability committee, which was set up under equality legislation in 2007 because of the unique aspects of disability discrimination.

A planned review of whether the committee should continue – five years after the EHRC’s launch – will take place in September.

Smith, who chairs the committee, said: “I am worried about that, because with a smaller commission with less resources, it is easy to understand why that review might say, ‘yes, it is a good thing but we cannot afford it.’”

The chair of the committee has to be a disabled person, and a commissioner, so if the committee is scrapped it makes it more likely that there will not be a single disabled EHRC commissioner.

Smith said: “I would always hope there was a disabled person on the board. I know from a personal level that I have changed a lot of decisions… because of the different perspective I have been able to bring as a disabled person and activist.”

He said that the government’s plans posed a “genuine risk” that the EHRC would not be able to continue with the “really positive things” it had achieved.

He pointed to the second phase of the EHRC’s widely-praised disability-related harassment inquiry, which is trying to secure major “structural” change within public bodies. “It would be very sad if that positive strategic work… was no longer possible.

“We have a budget considerably smaller than we did three years ago. With less money, less people, you can do less stuff.”

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK and another member of the disability committee, said the EHRC played “a unique and valuable role in the protection and promotion of our rights”, and added: “We would be very concerned if their independence, authority and capacity were curtailed so that the battle for disability equality is weakened.”

17 May 2012

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