The equality watchdog has been accused of a “head in the sand” failure to respond to significant criticisms by MPs about its failure to enforce anti-discrimination legislation.
In a new report, the Commons women and equalities committee calls on the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to “overcome its timidity”, “refocus its work”, “be bolder” in using its powers, and increase its enforcement of the Equality Act.
But the commission has refused to respond to the criticisms in the report, and instead has issued a statement praising its own performance.
The report says repeated inquiries have found EHRC “failing to act in areas of significant inequality and unable to provide an adequate explanation of why it appears not to be able to fulfil the role of a robust enforcer of equality law”.
The committee asked a series of witnesses if they thought organisations and businesses worried about EHRC taking legal action against them. Not one of them thought they did.
The report says that the commission has never used some of its unique legal powers.
It says the commission has applied for injunctions to prevent unlawful discrimination on just seven occasions, none of which the committee could find information about on the EHRC website.
And there has been just one formal investigation since 2009-10 and no assessments of how organisations are complying with the public sector equality duty, which was brought in by the Equality Act 2010.
The report concludes: “The result of this is that the burden of enforcement has been borne by individuals, even where the EHRC has become involved.”
It warns that disabled people and other individuals are facing discrimination “because employers and service providers are not afraid to discriminate, knowing that they are unlikely to be held to account”.
And it calls on EHRC to “significantly increase the volume, transparency and publicity of its enforcement work by making much greater use of its unique enforcement powers, publicising that work and reducing its reliance on individual complainants”.
Although the committee acknowledged that the commission had had its budget cut by nearly £42 million since 2007, it said it was still repeatedly underspending on its budget, with a forecast underspend of £689,000 for 2018-19.
The committee also said it was “deeply concerned” by the way the commission had handled discrimination claims made by its own staff during its latest restructuring programme.
Despite the criticism and multiple recommendations relating to its work, EHRC refused to say if it welcomed the report, if it agreed with the committee’s conclusions, or if it would consider the recommendations for improvement.
Instead, it issued a statement describing itself as a “confident and robust defender of people’s rights”, although it failed in the statement to give any examples of how it had tackled disability discrimination.
A spokesperson said EHRC had doubled the number of legal cases it had taken in the last few years, and that it had “helped more individuals and started a number of high profile investigations”.
The only recommendations it welcomed were those where the committee had agreed with its own previous calls for action on access to justice and strengthening the public sector equality duty.
The spokesperson said the commission was “always looking to improve” and was already planning to “focus on larger, longer-term interventions to achieve greater impact and make more use of our unique powers to ensure justice for those whose rights are breached”.
The committee received written evidence from more than 200 individuals and organisations for its Enforcing the Equality Act report, including several disabled people’s organisations.
It also heard oral evidence from disabled campaigners Doug Paulley (pictured, right), Esther Leighton (pictured, left) and Jeanine Blamires – who discussed the challenges they experienced when they took organisations to court for disability discrimination – and Mike Smith, a former EHRC disability commissioner.
The report concludes: “While individuals must still have the right to challenge discrimination in the courts, the system of enforcement should ensure that this is only rarely needed.
“This requires a fundamental shift in the way that enforcement of the Equality Act is thought about and applied.”
Paulley welcomed the report and said he agreed with its conclusions on disability rights and the law, EHRC and enforcement of the Equality Act 2010.
But he said EHRC’s response to the report had avoided the significant criticisms of its work by the committee.
He said: “The EHRC’s ‘head in the sand’ avoidance of the significant reasoned and evidenced criticisms in the report is redolent of the very behaviour that is subject to the criticism: failure to engage with issues and concerns in a proactive way, and failure to embrace opportunities to better serve the disadvantaged people they purport to support.”
As well as criticism of EHRC’s work, the report also calls for regulators, ombudsmen and inspectorates to take more action to enforce the Equality Act.
And it calls on the government to make a “fundamental shift” in how it enforces the act, and act on its own legal obligation to “embed compliance and enforcement” into “its most significant strategies and action plans”.
The committee said it had seen “repeated examples” of government strategies that have failed to recognise discrimination “let alone contain actions to secure compliance with the Equality Act”.
The report says the government’s failure to do this in connection with its recent focus on improving the workplace “beggars belief”.
It adds: “This failure leaves the Government at serious risk of breaching the public sector equality duty in its most important strategies and means that individuals facing discrimination continue to bear the full burden of enforcement, even in policy areas that the Government has identified as of central importance to the country.”
Maria Miller, the Conservative chair of the committee, said: “Employers and service providers are not afraid to discriminate, knowing that they are unlikely to be held to account.
“We need a critical mass of cases to build a culture where compliance with the Equality Act is the norm.
“The EHRC must overcome its timidity. It has unique powers, limited resources and must use them for maximum impact.
“It should make regulators, inspectorates and ombudsmen not only key partners in creating a critical mass of enforcement action but also key targets for enforcement action when those same regulators, inspectorates and ombudsmen fail to meet their own equality duties.”
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