The TUC, along with a wide range of equality and human rights organisations, has published an open letter, welcoming the Government’s preferred candidate for Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Baroness Onora O’Neill and warning of the challenges that the EHRC faces in light of a government that seems set on undermining its independence and effectiveness.
Yesterday, Baroness Onora O’Neill attended a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, after which it is expected she will be confirmed as the next Chair. She is a crossbench peer and academic who has written widely on political philosophy and ethics. As such, it is hoped that she will be no walk-over in the face of government moves to interfere with the EHRC’s activities.
Today, the Commons will debate changes to the EHRC’s statutory duties. Among the legislative reforms proposed by this government is the repeal of its general duty to support a society based on freedom from prejudice and discrimination, the opportunity to participate equally in society and a shared respect for human rights. The eminent barrister, academic and campaigner against discrimination, Professor Sir Bob Hepple QC has said without this duty the EHRC will be left “rudderless”.
But the statutory changes are unlikely to be as damaging as other government reforms including, deep cuts to the EHRC’s budget and staffing, already in the region of 60-70% and likely to be greater as the government’s zero-based budget review of all the EHRC’s activities and the next spending review gets underway.
The EHRC’s grants programme has ended. It provided £14m in funding to 285 frontline organisations such as CABx, law centres and Race Equality Councils to provide specialist discrimination advice, casework, advocacy and education at a local level. And, its helpline which provided advice to 40,000 individuals a year has been closed. The government has instead established an alternative Equality and Advisory Support Service, contracted from the private sector, which will work on a referral basis only and cannot be contacted directly by individuals.
The new Framework Document, governing relations between ministers and the EHRC, has been criticised by the UN, which previously awarded the EHRC ‘A’ status as a national human rights institution, because it “significantly limits its freedom to determine priorities without undue influence from government”.
Finally, Baroness O’Neill and her new board of commissioners will have hanging over them a further government review of the EHRC’s performance in autumn 2013 with the specific threat that “Should sufficient progress not have been made, we will seek to implement more substantial reform”.
As Chuka Umunna said yesterday in his opening speech on the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill: “At the moment the general view amongst many people is that effectively what we are seeing is the abolition of this important organisation by stealth, that is what seems to be happening.”
Download the open letter on the future of the EHRC