The equality watchdog could be left with almost no disabled employees if it confirms plans to cut more than 100 jobs, an open letter signed by scores of its own staff has warned.
More than 120 members of Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) staff have signed the letter to the commissioner responsible for initial approval of the proposals, Baroness [Margaret] Prosser, a former president of the TUC.
Their letter warns Baroness Prosser that the EHRC could be breaching the Equality Act – legislation it is responsible for enforcing – if the job cuts go ahead.
The letter says the job losses and the closure of regional EHRC offices would mean that “virtually all” the commission’s disabled and black and minority ethnic staff would lose their jobs.
The EHRC is planning to cut staff posts from about 250 to just 150 by the end of 2012, although it is thought that these figures do not include those working on its helpline. The commission employed as many as 525 people after its launch in 2007.
The letter also questions why the EHRC is planning for its budget to be cut to £18 million by 2014-15, when the government has said publicly that its budget will be cut to £26 million.
A budget of £18 million would be several million pounds less than the annual budget of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) when it was merged into the new “cross-strand” equality body in 2007, says the letter, while the EHRC would have 66 fewer staff than the DRC.
The letter also points out that the number of legal actions taken by the EHRC has already dropped to just 25 in the first 10 months of 2011-12, compared with 59 in the same period of 2010-11.
Mike Smith, chair of the EHRC’s disability committee and its only disabled commissioner, told Disability News Service (DNS): “I am concerned, but I cannot comment publicly until the chief executive has had the opportunity to counter the points made in the letter.”
DNS has been unable to speak directly to an EHRC press officer this week, but the commission emailed answers to a series of questions.
A spokeswoman said the government was reviewing the EHRC budget, but she refused to explain why the commission was preparing for an annual budget of £18 million, rather than £26 million.
She insisted that the commission would still be able to do its job, by being “focused in what we do, working more closely with others, and achieving further savings in our own spending in order to deliver value for tax payers”.
The EHRC’s board of commissioners will have to approve the proposals in October, following a three-month consultation with staff and unions.
The government has already threatened to scrap the EHRC entirely if the quality of its work does not improve.
It has also removed the EHRC’s funding for its grants programme, while the private sector call centre-provider Sitel is set to lead a consortium that will take over the commission’s helpline from 1 October.
The EHRC spokeswoman said: “The number of legal cases we take varies from year to year, depending on what cases come to us, if those cases are strategic, as well as whether the likely costs will be within the scope of our budget.
“We are actively seeking some new strategic cases to build on our successes and are confident that our strategic legal work will continue to make a big impact.”
She added: “We are committed to increasing the diversity of our workforce and are using all the tools we have to ensure that the diversity of the workforce is not just maintained but improved.”
And she said the commission would “continue to carefully consider the equality impact of proposed changes, and are mindful of the way in which they might affect different people”.
She added: “All public sector organisations are having to manage with reduced budgets and there will be continuing pressure in the future.
“The staffing level proposed in the new organisation design reflects the fact that we are working to a significantly lower budget overall.
“These are difficult times for our staff. We recognise that some of them are unsettled and may be worried about their future.
“We are doing all we can to avoid compulsory redundancies, as well as assisting those staff whose future is outside the organisation.”
26 July 2012