Lynne Featherstone MP
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Equalities
Government Equalities Office
London SW1E 5DU
3 August 2012
I write to you as the lead Minister for the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
My concerns within this note relate to recent Government cuts made to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Supporting this body to be effective in tackling discrimination is a key indicator of the Government’s commitment to equality.
As well as being approached by members of EMLD, I have also heard concerns expressed by wider Lib Dem members who have read newspaper reports and are concerned about the Commission’s ability to combat discrimination against people with disabilities as well as BME communities and women.
There has been little in the media or on the party website giving any information about the slimmed down organisation.
It is generally recognised that public expenditure savings need to be found from all quarters, however the proposed EHRC budget of £18m is not just significantly lower than its’ original budget of £70m at its’ inception in 2007 but less than the 2006 budget of the Commission for Racial Equality.
Indeed the figure of £18m is lower than the combined budgets of the old Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, who were all funded to the collective total of almost £50m.
My concerns lead me to question the capacity of the EHRC to deliver an effective role in tackling discrimination and in meeting the requirements of the Equality Act 2010.
I, and other EMLD members, fear that such cuts amount to effectively abolishing the EHRC by stealth, which could potentially set reverse progress made on equalities over the past decades.
I have heard the argument that if it wasn’t for the Lib Dems the Conservatives might have abolished the EHRC altogether by now. However that argument is unlikely to cut much ice with the public. Many people affected by discrimination will conclude that the EHRC is being wound down and that this reflects how low equality sits on the Coalition’s agenda.
I have also read press reports suggesting that critics of the cuts believe “virtually all of the commission’s employees who are black, ethnic minority or otherwise disabled will lose their jobs.” I would appreciate your reaction to these alarming media stories.
A letter from 124 EHRC staff to their Chairwoman, Baroness Prosser, states that “the newly appointed top layer of management is already exclusively white.” Again, this is a cause for concern, and if true would send out all the wrong signals to the public. Is the organisation still committed to diversity in the workplace?
I would be grateful if you could assure me that the EHRC has carried out a fully comprehensive Equality Impact Assessment of the impact of these cuts generally, and also specifically on staff by strand.
I believe that the old CRE, EoC and DRC had a combined total of 576 staff in 2006, but that the latest cuts will reduce the EHRC staff to just 150, and that further job losses are in the pipeline.
I am told that 89 of the lowest paid posts (levels 1 – 3) will be deleted, which is a cause for concern because BME staff are disproportionately over-represented in these grades.
Although most EHRC staff work across all strands, the figures amount to just 21 staff per strand; hardly enough to carry out its’ core functions. I am led to believe that the EHRC will have 45 fewer staff than the CRE had and 66 less than the DRC.
Reports that the EHRC will be left with just eleven lawyers suggests that the body will be seriously constrained in enforcing equalities laws and in taking forward important and test cases, and protecting victims of discrimination.
Suggestions that there have been just 25 legal cases taken by the EHRC in the past year will raise fears that the impact of the new cuts will reduce this figure further meaning companies and authorities that perpetrate discrimination are even more likely to get away with it.
There is considerable concern that reducing this arms-length Government agency by such an extent will seriously inhibit its’ ability to deal effectively with promoting and enforcing the Equality Act across the seven different ‘strands’ of equalities.
I cannot find anything in Hansard where you or any other minister are announcing or reporting the new EHRC budget of £18m, yet this figure had been widely reported in the media. I have only seen the figure of £26m mentioned in Parliament. Are there any plans for a Parliamentary statement on this matter?
I understand that in addition to the cuts referred to above, there are also cuts of £10m to the EHRC’s grant programme. Can you also tell me how the budget cuts are likely to impact on the local network of Race Equality Councils or equivalents, which were agreed to be protected when Parliament abolished the CRE and set up the EHRC? And has this process been subject to Equality Impact Assessments?
I hope you can understand the strength of feeling on this issue. EMLD members will need to have some concrete good news stories to tell BAME communities at the end of this Coalition term, and we fear that the savage cuts to the EHRC will undermine the reputation and image of our party amongst this section of the electorate even further.
Chair, Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD)