EHRC chair faces criticism from MPs over disabled commissioner’s boycott

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The chair of the equality watchdog has faced criticism from MPs after admitting that a disabled commissioner appointed six months ago is still refusing to attend its board meetings.

Tory peer Lord [Kevin] Shinkwin has been boycotting meetings at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) since April because of its refusal to appoint him to the post of disability commissioner.

He is refusing to attend meetings until the commission reinstates that role, and allows him to chair its new disability advisory committee.

He had applied last year for the post of disability commissioner but was told months later – just 36 hours before his first board meeting – that the role had been made redundant and that he had instead been appointed as a general commissioner and would not lead on disability issues.

David Isaac, EHRC’s chair, told MPs on the Commons women and equalities committee yesterday (Wednesday) that Lord Shinkwin was still not attending board meetings, and that the continuing stand-off was having “an adverse impact on our ability to mainstream disability and to do our work in the disability arena”.

Isaac (pictured giving evidence) told the committee that EHRC did not believe there was a need for a disability commissioner because of the decision to “mainstream” disability into its work.

He admitted that some of the members of the commission’s disability committee – which was scrapped earlier this year – “initially were unhappy” with the decision to scrap the disability commissioner role.

But he said they had showed in subsequent meetings that they “understand the commission’s approach and they approve of mainstreaming”.

Isaac claimed that all those applying to be members of the commission’s new, non-statutory disability advisory committee had accepted the decision to scrap the role of disability commissioner.

He said: “We have now made people comfortable that disability is mainstreamed and there is no longer a disability commissioner.”

But Tory MP Philip Davies told him: “It is not unreasonable for somebody to apply for a position, to be appointed to it, and to expect that position to be in place.

“You apply for a particular post, you are appointed to a particular post, and then you are told subsequently that that post… doesn’t exist anymore.”

Isaac blamed the length of time between the interviews last December and the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin in April, an appointment made by the minister.

During that gap of several months, the statutory disability committee had “expired” and the board had decided that the post of disability commissioner should also be scrapped.

But the Conservative chair of the committee, Maria Miller, said it was “extraordinary” that the potential candidates for the post – including Lord Shinkwin – had not been told the role had changed since they applied for it.

She said: “There would be very few people who would not find that somewhat odd.”

She added later: “Why is your process so lacking in transparency?”

And she said: “I think the world will take a view on the fact that the EHRC has decided to abolish the role of a disability commissioner in a way which is clearly out of step with the disability committee.”

Davies said it was “quite clear” from minutes of a meeting on 27 March – which Isaac attended – that Greening had been appointing Lord Shinkwin to be the disability commissioner and not just a general commissioner.

But Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, said it was “a matter of fact” that Greening had appointed him as a general commissioner and not a disability commissioner.

Isaac said he had done “everything I reasonably can” to negotiate a solution with Lord Shinkwin, including making approaches to Greening, the Government Equalities Office, and Tory peers.

He said: “I am keen to talk to him and would ask him to abandon the conditions he has attached to engagement.”

When Miller said she was “hugely disappointed” that the commission had still not found a solution, Isaac promised to contact Lord Shinkwin again, but he added: “I am very, very keen that he takes up his position as commissioner, but you can only be involved in dialogue if both parties agree to discuss the matter with each other.

“I believe we have done all we reasonably can to ensure that that dialogue happens.”

Lord Shinkwin told DNS in August that he would continue to boycott board meetings until the post of disability commissioner was reinstated.

He said in August: “My understanding from what I have been told is that I have to accept the abolition of the disability commissioner post and that I will not be chairing the disability advisory committee. I cannot accept either of those.

“I think it is absolutely essential that disabled people have a very strong voice as disabled people.

“We have equality needs the other protected characteristic groups do not have, and they need to be championed.”