EHRC celebrates 10th birthday with call for new powers

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The equality watchdog has asked the government for significant new powers, including the ability to inspect buildings that are flouting access laws.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it needed stronger powers to hold “powerful and well-resourced” governments and large organisations to account.

But it also said that it should be made independent of government, and accountable instead to parliament.

The calls came in a blog by the commission’s chair, David Isaac (pictured), which was written to mark 10 years since the watchdog was founded.

Following his comments, the government told Disability News Service that it had already begun working with EHRC to plan a “tailored review” of the commission, which will look at whether its powers “remain appropriate” and will also consider the issue of its independence.

The review is expected to begin in April next year and finish the following month, although it might not be published until 2019.

Isaac said in his blog that the commission had “cause to be anxious” that a post-Brexit Britain would see a reduction in equality and human rights protections.

There have also been strong recent criticisms of the government’s record on disability rights from the United Nations.

It was only in August that a vice-chair of the UN committee on the rights of persons with disabilities told a UK government delegation in Geneva: “I want to see you coming back as world leader [on disability rights], which at the moment I am afraid you’re not.”

And the chair of the committee, Theresia Degener, said in an interview that, compared to other countries with “less economic power” and less advanced equality and discrimination legislation, the UK’s austerity policy was “less human rights oriented”.

Degener said that the UK’s record on disability rights was “going backwards in a pace and to an amount that it worries us a lot”, and that the evidence in front of her committee – which had been assessing the UK’s implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – had been “overwhelming”.

In his blog, Isaac said the commission needed the power to “enter and inspect premises where disability access requirements are being ignored” and to carry out “mystery shopping” exercises, which could ensure businesses are providing accessible products and services.

And he said the commission should be able to hand out enforcement notices or impose civil sanctions on organisations that breached certain parts of the Equality Act.

Isaac also said the commission should be able to demand information from organisations that it suspected were acting unlawfully, without having to launch a formal investigation.

He said that restoring EHRC’s power to arrange conciliation services (voluntary discussions aimed at resolving disputes), or even allowing it to arrange arbitration (where an impartial person makes a decision on a dispute, outside the court system) and make binding rulings in some cases, could reduce the burden on the legal system and help cut legal costs.

Isaac also called on the prime minister to make the commission directly accountable to parliament, rather than to the government – it is currently sponsored by the Government Equalities Office, within the Department for Education.

He said: “In 1997 the Labour government gave full independence to the Bank of England.

“In 2011 the coalition government created the independent Office of Budget Responsibility.

“Both of these organisations were made independent to give them autonomy and greater credibility to make decisions.

“By making us accountable to parliament rather than ministers, the prime minister would remove government’s control of our budget, their involvement in the appointment of our board, and any perceived threat of political interference.”

EHRC now plans to run a series of public events over the next year to hear the public’s views on these ideas and to try to secure their support.

Kamran Mallick, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “I fully support EHRC having greater powers to enforce the Equality Act.

“To proactively enforce the law will have real impact. Laws are no good if they not enforced, and those they aim to protect are not informed of their rights.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “A forthcoming tailored review of the Equality and Human Rights Commission that will run from 2018 to 2019 will provide an opportunity to consider the broader issue of EHRC independence as well as reviewing the powers available to the commission more broadly and whether they remain appropriate.”