Troubles at the Equality and Human Rights Commission

Thought I’d pitch in with my thoughts on the troubled Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I remember being on the London board of the original Commission for Racial Equality when this new all singing, all dancing Equality Commission was first mooted. All the race bodies and leaders of different groups in the community were against it – including Trevor Phillips. The leaders of the other commissions (women and disability) were all against it – as they all appeared to resent to some degree (and not surprisingly) giving up their leadership positions and becoming commissioners under someone else – particularly when that someone else turned out to be Mr Phillips. There was also genuine concern that the clear fight for a particular cause would be muddied and subsumed by being part of a greater whole. And there was fear and competitiveness as to whether the Chair would give more attention to race (as that was his background) and would that leave women, disability, sexual orientation and so on playing catch up.

Nevertheless – the new Equality and Human Rights Commission came into being, chaired by Trevor Phillips, who hired as the new CEO Nicola Brewer, and is now about 18 months old. Ms Brewer has recently left for a plum job as South Africa High Commissioner.

There was always going to be trouble at mill. Lots of old scores, egos and enemies all thrust into one body would inevitably lead to jealousy, noses out of joint and undoubtedly the real feeling of being ignored when it came to some decisions.

In terms of the tide of resigning commissioners – there are some who are and have been phenomenal campaigners, leaders and experts in their particular field – and there are some that may simply be crumbs fighting.The severe reduction in number of commissioners which is coming, and the fact that they all have to reapply for their jobs, may also play a part in their ‘brave’ decision to go at this point.

What I don’t understand is if it has been so dreadful why none of them really rocked the boat prior to the possibility of losing their jobs? It’s one of the reasons I think that if Trevor Phillips survives this debacle new blood might be a very good thing. Well – there will be blood on the carpet – that’s for sure.

However, there is always a difficult balance to strike when people have championed causes and been instrumental in moving forward the agenda on whichever equality is their drum to beat. The problems arise, I think, in twofold ways. Firstly – if you have banged a drum for years and years – it is very difficult to change the way you beat it or the repertoire that you play. Secondly, Trevor Phillips appears to have trodden on many other egos to make announcements, change direction, challenge the status quo – without consultation or agreement. That too is a difficult balance to strike – leadership versus consultation. Phillips has clearly got it wrong in terms of Commissioners’ feelings and also, perhaps, his style of leadership. On the other hand – there are such major challenges for this country in terms of equalities – taking the agenda boldly where no one has gone before may require such leadership and saying the unsayable.

Phillips has been right on some things like changing multiculturalism – or aspects around it. He said we were sleepwalking into segregation – and that did change the multicultural weather. Councils who for so long had funded so many different communities – funding separateness – have started to fund togetherness instead. Critics turned that into Phillips wanting to attack multiculturalism – but it wasn’t – it was acknowledging that what was once good policy had had its day.

My main anger with the EHRC is that it is compliant with the Labour agenda – not independent enough. Women have been the sacrificial lambs that Phillips has happily led to slaughter in the Equalities Bill . But Harriet Harman lost in cabinet to Mandelson on that – ergo women can just wait for equality. Trevor Phillips is a Labour man and won’t really challenge the Government.

The other main complaint is that the EHRC is just dreadful at answering mail – both in terms of getting an answer – and the content when it finally comes. However, I would lay this at the door of the ex-Chief Executive. It was Nicola Brewer’s job as Chief Officer to run the Commission – and she singular failed in terms of efficiency on this score alone.

It’s not just growing pains that have caused the hoo ha at the EHRC. There are real problems that need sorting – and fast. With Brewer gone – and about six commissioners gone – who knows whether Trevor Phillips will survive. Having just signed a new three year contract for his job – and with Government backing – he may do. If he does – he has one hell of a lot of mending to do – and perhaps a little bit of humility might help.