COMMONS

Home Affairs Committee responds to consultation on the future of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

07 April 2011

The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee has written today to the Home Secretary in response to the consultation she launched in March, Building a Fairer Britain: Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, following evidence from the EHRC, the Minister for Equalities and a range of equalities organisations.

In the letter, the Committee welcomes the proposal for the EHRC to focus more on its core functions, which it believes should include greater use of enforcement powers, but raises some concerns about the organisation’s capacity to deliver more services in-house in the context of a reduction in resources, and emphasises the need to safeguard its independence.

The text of the letter is appended below. The Committee will publish the evidence it has taken on The Work of the Home Office – Equalities on 18 April 2011.

Chair of the Committee, Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, said that:

“The EHRC has done a good job, but it needs to concentrate on its core functions. In the current economic climate I am concerned that equality will suffer, therefore we need to focus on core functions that include greater use of enforcement powers”.

Letter from the chair of the committee to the Home Secretary

Dear Home Secretary,

Home Affairs Committee response to Building a Fairer Britain: Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

Thank you for your letter alerting me to the fact that you have launched a consultation on the future of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which will run until 15 June 2011. As you are aware, the Home Affairs Committee has recently undertaken a short inquiry into the Work of the Home Office with respect to Equalities. We took relevant evidence from Scope, Stonewall and Equanomic UK, as well as the Commission itself, and would like to bring the following points to your attention. We are less able to comment with regard to the human rights aspects of the Commission’s work and I am therefore copying this letter to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Setting out more clearly the EHRC’s core functions as an independent equality regulator and National Human Rights Institution

You propose for the Commission to focus more on its core functions as an equality regulator and National Human Rights institution, assisting organisations in complying with their statutory duties and taking action where they do not. Our witnesses agreed that these should be primary roles for the Commission. Ms Neckles, of Equanomics UK, stated that “strong regulatory and enforcement functions are absolutely pivotal” and Dr Bush, representing Scope, said that the “core things” that the Commission should be doing to support disabled people in society are “keeping legislation under review, but also making sure that it can take and facilitate test cases that really explore gaps in the discrimination legislation.”

The Commission has had a number of achievements in this area; in the words of Mr Summerskill, of Stonewall, “some important test cases have been taken.” However, witnesses emphasised that the Commission could and should make better use of its enforcement powers.

We consider that there is indeed scope for the Commission to place more focus on its core functions as an equality regulator; this should include greater use of its enforcement powers.

Stopping non-core functions and, where appropriate, making alternative provision, where they can be done better and/or more cost-effectively by Government or other civil society/private sector providers

You propose for the Commission to cease a number of its current functions, including repealing its power to make provision for conciliation services and stopping funding for the helpline and the grants programme which awards money for public awareness, legal advice and advocacy, and capacity and capability building.

Witnesses had mixed views on the success of the helpline in its current form. Mr Summerskill told us that there “seems to be very little evidence” that it has been servicing lesbian, gay and bisexual people. However, Dr Bush stated that its closure would have a “significant impact” on disabled people and organisations for disabled people, who do use the hotline when they face discrimination.

In terms of provision of grants, Mr Summerskill was “not sure there is evidence of a strategic oversight of how those grants are being used to deliver specific outcomes around the country that make a real difference to people’s lives.” Ms Neckles also considered that the Commission has been weak in terms of provision of advice around the law, and guidance and strategic liaison.

We have heard concerns about the performance of the Commission in delivering the helpline and the grants programme, which indicate that the Government is right to address this issue. We believe that such a helpline can provide an important source of support to some of the most vulnerable people in society and therefore due consideration must be given to user requirements, as well as delivery costs, in commissioning an alternative.

You propose that the Commission carry out itself a number of tasks it currently funds other organisations to undertake. We have some concerns that requiring a streamlined Commission to carry out capacity-building may lead to underperformance in this area, particular when delivered in partnership with Citizen’s Advice Bureaux and law centres, which are themselves facing significant funding cuts.

Clarifying the Commission’s relationship to Government and strengthening further its governance and systems to provide greater transparency, accountability and value for money

You propose a number of measures to make the Commission more accountable to Ministers and to Parliament. We heard evidence from the Commission Chair and Chief Executive about measures the organisation has put in place to rectify previous mistakes in governance. Mr Phillips also suggested to us that the organisation’s board “should not have been a stakeholder board”; it should be “smaller” and “more plural.”

We support proposals for better oversight of the Commission’s budget and accounts, provided these do not compromise the organisation’s independence. We hope that the reform process can be used to ensure that future Commission Boards include members from a wider range of backgrounds.

Process for reform

Your proposals will require a mixture of legislative and non-legislative reform. You state that “because we consider legislative change is desirable, we have included powers to make the relevant regulations in the Public Bodies Bill currently before Parliament.” Mr Phillips expressed concern about the potential for the Public Bodies Bill to compromise the Commission’s independence as it gives Ministers the power to make changes to its structure, functions and funding. Independence from Government is essential for the Commission as an equality regulator and ‘A’ status national Human Rights Institution.

We are pleased that the consultation on the future of the Equality and Human Rights Commission will run for 12 weeks, consistent with best practice. We are, however, concerned by your proposal for any legislative changes to the Commission to be carried out by regulations made under the Public Bodies Bill currently going through Parliament. We consider that these measures merit proper parliamentary debate, not least because of the particular need to safeguard the Commission’s independence as an equality regulator and ‘A’ status national Human Rights Institution.

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