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Equality and Human Rights Commission

Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2012

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Clark.

Staff at the Equality and Human Rights Commission are experts in their field and are deeply concerned about the attack on equalities represented by the proposed 62% budget cut and 72% staffing cut by 2015 from the original levels in 2007. They and their trade unions—the Public and Commercial Services Union and Unite—believe that those cuts amount to the closure of the EHRC as we know it and its transformation into little more than a think-tank.

The eminent QC, Sir Bob Hepple, states in a recent article for the Industrial Law Journal that the Commission’s

“ability to use effectively even its restricted powers will be compromised by severe cuts in its annual budget”.

The EHRC is an independent statutory body established by Parliament under the Equality Act 2006. As a regulator, the commission is responsible for enforcing equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status and encouraging compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998. Its powers include promoting understanding and encouraging good practice in relation to human rights, monitoring the law and providing legal assistance, providing information and advice, conducting inquiries and judicial reviews, providing a conciliation service, and grant making powers. In addition, European directives contain requirements for an equality body within member states.

Let me turn for a few moments to the Scottish dimension, given the very different political, legal and economic landscape. The proposed cuts would threaten high-profile work in Scotland, such as the disability harassment inquiry, the human trafficking inquiry, guidance to public bodies on their obligations under equality law and the EHRC hosting of Independent Living in Scotland.

The Scottish helpline deals with more than 5,000 calls per annum, the largest proportion of which are from Scots who have been subjected to disability discrimination. The Scottish helpline also provides a UK-wide service. The nature of the advice is highly technical. No other organisation with equivalent experience and knowledge can fill the gap and provide a similar quality of service.

The fact the commission is losing its funding function is already leaving a gap in the finances of well respected organisations such as the Govan Law Centre, the Glasgow Disability Alliance, the Equality Network and the Central Scotland Racial Equality Council—to name just a handful. What impact will the 62% budget cut have? The work force will be cut by more than half; legal enforcement capabilities will be reduced; the helpline will close by September 2012; and current provision in Scotland and Wales will end.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an organisation that is of great importance to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Does she share my concern that there has been absolutely no planning or any sign of planning about how a service will be offered to vulnerable people who are suffering discrimination in Scotland that understands the specific context of Scotland in terms of devolution? The Secretary of State for Scotland has failed to meet the Equality and Human Rights Commission Scotland, and the last time that he met the organisation was in July 2010.

I very much share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I am very disappointed to hear that the Secretary of State for Scotland has not met anyone about this important issue.

Regional offices will be shut or reduced. For example, the Bristol and Nottingham offices have already been shut for about a year, and further offices planned for closure are Birmingham, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bangor, Guildford, Cambridge and Leeds, and the offices in Manchester, London, Glasgow and Cardiff are to shrink. In addition, grant functions will end—some ended in March 2012 and the rest will end March 2013.

I want to go into more detail about the cuts and pose some questions to the Minister. The EHRC helpline currently provides direct advice to callers, and staff can refer cases for consideration for legal support by the commission. Of the more than 70,000 calls received every year by the helpline, despite the fact that it has never been properly advertised, the majority group calling for advice is disabled people. The helpline will be closed and replaced by September 2012 with a referral service signposting callers to potential sources of help. The outsourced referral line will not have the conciliation powers or legal assistance powers that the commission has under the Equality Act 2006.

A recent Guardian article by David Hencke on 3 April reported that the jobs agency at the centre of a fraud inquiry, A4e, is the preferred bidder for the EHRC helpline service. The Government Equalities Office has informed staff that the preferred bidder said that it will not keep any provision in Scotland or Wales.

More than 30% of staff who currently work for the helpline are disabled, some 20% are from black and minority ethnic communities and 20% are carers. Given the impossibility of relocating for many, particularly in Scotland and Wales where provision will end, and high likelihood of workers opting for redundancy, the expertise of those highly experienced advisers will be lost.

My hon. Friend may be aware that helpline workers in Scotland were advised last year that their contract with EHRC would terminate at the end of March. However, they have now been advised that they are requested to work until the end of June, because as yet no provider has been identified and an award of contracts has not been made. Does she agree that this is an utterly chaotic way to conduct a Government agency?

Yes; that is typical of how staff have been treated in the agency.

The chances of a smooth transition to the referral line and retention of expertise, as the Government claim, are therefore negligible. Given the one third of operators who are disabled, one fifth from BME communities and one fifth who are carers, what equality impact assessment has been made of the changes to the helpline provision? Why the delay with the announcement of the new helpline provider? The announcement was supposed to be made in mid-February, but it is now rumoured to have been pushed back to the middle of May.

The closure of regional offices will exacerbate the problems of advice deserts, where no other advisory services exist, and the commission will lose its vital link to the public and vital access to crucial evidence of emerging issues. Instead of remaining regionally focused, teams have been reassigned to undertake national support work. The loss of those offices and the intelligence-gathering work that they do at grass-roots level, which my hon. Friend mentioned, will have a significant impact on the understanding of equality and human rights across Great Britain.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. Does she agree that in these days of cuts, which we are now shaping up to, there is a danger that we are preventing some people from taking advantage of legal guidance and legal aid? As I suspect that she is aware, we should consider one section of the community in particular: ladies should get legal aid and advice at the time of their life when they need it most.

I could not agree more, and I hope to mention that later.

What research has been done to ascertain the impact of the closure of regional offices on the problem of advice deserts and gathering evidence on emerging local issues?

Legal grants—projects providing specialist legal advice and representation in equality and human rights—ended on 31 March, and strategic grants providing guidance, advice and advocacy services, infrastructure development, capacity building and good relations will end in March 2013. Many disability and race groups have benefited from the EHRC grants programme, as they did before the EHRC’s creation. A grant received by a local equality body from the EHRC could, and often did, lead to additional sources of revenue from other funders, such as the lottery, charities and local authorities.

The warnings by experts such as Race on the Agenda in 2007 that the local BME infrastructure would suffer significant funding reductions have been realised, not because of the EHRC’s creation, but because of Government cuts to the EHRC grants programme. The Government have argued that the grants function, among other services, should close because they claim grants have little impact and the service function has not been well managed. Although there is an ongoing complaint about the Government’s statement in this regard, it is perhaps most telling to note that the experts and stakeholders also challenge the Government’s assertion. A survey of providers by the Discrimination Law Association indicated that, without EHRC grants, advice organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and law centres would not be able to sustain their services and that some might have to close down completely. My question to the Minister is, from whom have the Government and/or EHRC received protestations about the withdrawal of the grants programme?

The EHRC’s mediation services have ended. Contrary to the Government’s claims that legal aid will take up the shortfall, once the legal aid reforms are implemented, the only legal aid available for discrimination cases will be for goods, facilities and services cases, which are in the minority and are complex and involve large sums. Employment cases will not be eligible for any legal aid support.

I want to turn now to the loss of independence and United Nations “A” status. In 2009, the commission became one of just 70 United Nations “A” status accredited national human rights institutions. The EHRC is Britain’s first accredited NHRI. The “A” status confers special rights and entitlements to work with the UN Human Rights Council. To determine this status, the UN reviewed the work and structure of the commission at the time and found it to be compliant with the Paris principles. Key Paris principles are that the NHRI must be independent of government and not be subject to financial control that might affect its independence. The commission must also have adequate funding to conduct its activities. The loss of independence, lack of financial control and lack of funding due to 62% cuts mean that this status is in jeopardy.

The commission recently published its framework agreement with the Home Office, which includes details of spending controls and an obligation on the commission to provide a business case for approval to the Home Office’s director of communications for all projects with an element of spend on advertising and marketing. If the project is spending more than £100,000, the business case, once approved by the HO director of communication, should go to the Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities. Once HO Ministers have approved it, the EHRC must complete the Cabinet Office’s exemption template and submit the case for approval to the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group and the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

The agreement also states that the Home Office should receive near final versions of external EHRC communications 48 hours before issue. I do not know whether that is independence. Many MPs will be surprised that the framework agreement dictates how the commission interacts with Parliament and yet states categorically that the commission must be politically neutral and abide by the Cabinet Office’s rules on lobbying for non-departmental public bodies.

The commission is also instructed to issue guidance to staff, outlining when and how briefings for Parliament are developed, the style of briefings and how briefings should be internally cleared. Does the Minister believe that the framework agreement complies with the Paris principles, particularly relating to independence? Has he assessed the impact of the proposed budget cut to £26 million by the end of this year on the commission’s independence?

The current restructuring at the EHRC repeats many of the mistakes identified in the Public Accounts Committee report of 2010. The report highlighted the problem of staff with valuable skills leaving through an early exit scheme and went on to recommend that the Treasury and the Cabinet Office should ensure that they provide clear guidelines on the need to consider the retention of key skills when devising early exit schemes.

According to an answer to a parliamentary question, the EHRC spent £500,000 a month at one stage on consultancy fees and expenses for interim staff who are leading the work on reforming the commission. That is neither an acceptable use of public money, nor is it in the interests of the taxpayer. These major changes are occurring as questions about the commission’s new chair go unanswered. What assurances can the Minister give that the commission will not lose more skilled and experienced staff through more early exit schemes and that it will not replace staff already lost with costly consultants in the future? Can he say whether the Treasury and the Cabinet Office have produced the guidelines recommended by the PAC to ensure the retention of skilled staff, and has the commission followed that guidance? When will its next chair be announced?

Key stakeholders who responded to the Government consultation on the future of the EHRC, which was called “Building a fairer Britain: Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission”, made clear the need to maintain the EHRC’s funding and remit. However, the Government have so far refused to publish the results of the consultation in detail, despite freedom of information requests, parliamentary questions and an official letter to the Home Secretary from the general secretary of the TUC. So I have another question for the Minister. I am asking lots of questions, but that is because there are lots of questions to be answered. Will he publish the responses to the Government consultation on the future of the EHRC and, given the Home Office’s report on its own website that the majority of respondents opposed the changes to the EHRC, will the Minister halt further cuts?

There are many reasons for the EHRC to be proud of its achievements in its first two years. In fact, those achievements are too numerous to mention all of them in the time that I have available today. To mention just a couple of them, the EHRC has ensured protection against discrimination in employment for 6 million carers and exposed exploitation of migrant workers in the meat-processing sector.

There are still many equality challenges facing Britain today that require the presence of an effective EHRC. The annual reports of the Tribunals Service show a substantial increase in the number of claims lodged in employment tribunals since 2008-09. In addition, there are planned cuts to legal aid worth £350 million, and there will be a £1.166 billion reduction in grants to local government. At the same time, confidence in the voluntary sector is at an all-time low, and a voluntary sector in crisis cannot fill the vacuum left by funding cuts to local government grants, legal aid and the EHRC. A Government who take equality seriously would be committed to a future-proofed EHRC.

However, I acknowledge—as do many of the EHRC’s natural allies—that it has not all been plain sailing for the EHRC. Its first three sets of accounts were qualified by the National Audit Office, and obvious tensions between staff, senior management and the commissioners have no doubt had an impact on the EHRC’s ability to achieve its goals. The Government have sought to attack and undermine the work of the EHRC, particularly because of financial management issues. However, responsibility for those issues does not lie with those who work on the helpline, the grants team and the mediation service, or in regional offices. Any such issues should be sorted out, but they should not be used as an excuse to cut essential services to those who are in need and to those who are suffering discrimination.

As I have already said, despite concerns about the EHRC’s performance, non-governmental organisations, unions and others still want to see an effective, robust and independent EHRC, and I agree with them as the chair of the all-party group on equalities. Those bodies want a future in which an outward-looking, integrated and well-resourced commission that is in touch with the grass-roots concerns and needs of ordinary people provides much-needed enforcement powers, advice and support to the people of Britain, as they face the dire economic challenges brought about by this Government’s policies.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) on securing this debate, and on her commitment to equality. I apologise for the fact that the Minister for Equalities is unable to be in Westminster Hall this afternoon to respond directly to the debate.

I know of the hard work done by the hon. Member in chairing the all-party group on equalities, and how rigorous that group is in its approach to equality and fairness. Although we may have differences in relation to a number of the issues that she has raised today, the Government welcome the group’s rigour because we are unequivocal in our commitment to equal treatment and equality of opportunity. That is why we have taken a number of significant steps since we were elected to tackle the barriers to equal opportunities and social mobility. Although there will be differences between us this afternoon, I think that there is common recognition of these important issues.

However, on our own the Government will only ever make limited progress. If we are to stamp out prejudice and give everyone the chance to achieve their potential, we need concerted action by individuals, businesses and voluntary organisations across our communities. We also need a strong and effective equality body and national human rights institution to monitor our progress, make recommendations about how we can do better and ensure the law is working as intended.

Although I recognise the EHRC has struggled with a number of issues over the past few years, I pay tribute to several of its ordinary members of staff. However, the commission has struggled with its remit and to demonstrate that it is delivering value for money. As the hon. Lady highlighted, its first three sets of accounts were qualified, attracting criticism from the Public Accounts Committee. Its helpline and grants programmes were found to be poorly administered and poorly targeted. Its conciliation service was not cost-effective, costing almost £5,000 per case—almost 10 times more than those of other mediation providers.

I share the Minister’s disappointment that the Minister for Equalities is not here. She sat with me in the Committee that considered what became the Equality Act 2010. No matter what the previous Government wanted to do, she wanted to go further—how things have changed. However, will the Minister confirm the costs I mentioned, as well as the costs the Government have paid for consultancies?

We will no doubt come on to consultancy. One challenge the commission has faced relates to its use of interim staff, which has caused it some real issues. Over 2009-10, it spent almost £9 million—almost a third of its total pay bill—on an average of just 85 interim staff, or just 16% of its total work force for that year. There is nothing fair about that for the taxpayer.

That is why our Government-wide review of non-departmental public bodies concluded in October 2010 that the EHRC should be retained, but substantially reformed. At the same time, we announced in the spending review that we would more than halve its budget, from £55 million to £26.8 million. I know those cuts are a source of significant concern for the hon. Lady, but she will recognise, although perhaps not agree, that the Government have had to deal with real challenges as a result of the budget deficit left by the previous Government. Difficult decisions and reforms are needed to reduce that deficit.

Moreover, it is clear that even after the budget cuts, the EHRC remains well funded compared with similar bodies in other countries. As an arm’s length body, it is for the EHRC to decide how to manage the budget reductions. The location of the EHRC’s offices and the number of staff it employs at them are operational matters for the board and the management to decide after consultation with staff. If the EHRC is to deliver maximum value for taxpayers’ money, however, it must focus on its core remit—the areas where it alone can add value.

Does the Minister think it is for the EHRC to decide completely to withdraw a service from Scotland and Wales? Surely, that is something the Government should be interested in.

The hon. Lady will be aware of the statutory functions imposed on the EHRC, as well as the duties it has in relation to devolution as a consequence, and it has underlined that it will continue to engage with local partners. Decisions on the deployment and location of staff are obviously operational matters for the EHRC, but it has specific legislative responsibilities in relation to the devolved nations, such as the requirement to have specific decision-making committees for Scotland and Wales. It remains committed to working with local stakeholders.

The hon. Lady will know that in March 2011 we set out detailed proposals to reform the EHRC to achieve the focus on its core remit by clarifying its remit; stopping non-core activities and, where appropriate, making alternative provision where those activities can be done better or more cost-effectively by alternative providers; and strengthening its governance and systems to provide greater transparency, accountability and value for money. We received almost 1,000 responses to the consultation. While I recognise that she is impatient for the Government’s response, it is right that we take the time to consider the views expressed before announcing a way forward, and we hope to respond to the consultation shortly. A number of non-legislative reforms are, however, already under way.

I am aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns about the closure of the EHRC’s helpline and the ending of its grants programmes, and I will respond to them directly. I can reassure her that people will be able to receive expert advice and support on discrimination, which is tailored to their individual circumstances, from the new equality advisory and support service that we are commissioning. She challenged me on whether there is a preferred bidder. No, there is not a preferred bidder. The procurement process for a new equality advisory and support service is continuing and no preferred bidder has been selected. The intention is that the process should be completed in May, with the new service becoming operational in September.

Central Government funding for legal advice on discrimination will continue to be available through legal aid to ensure that limited public funds are targeted on those who need it most—the most serious cases in which legal advice or representation is justified. On conciliation, the Ministry of Justice website provides information on, and links to, good quality, accessible and effective mediation for individuals in England and Wales. In addition, a means-tested service for those who cannot afford the fees is available through LawWorks. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that similar provision is also available in Scotland.

We have sought to impose tighter financial controls and to stop waste. The operational independence of the EHRC—a publicly funded body—should not be a justification for financial indiscipline. In March, a new framework document clarifying the relationship between the EHRC and the Government was agreed between the Home Office and the EHRC board. The new framework document makes it clear that the EHRC will comply with Government-wide rules on managing public money, and with public expenditure controls, where they do not interfere with the EHRC’s ability to perform its statutory functions. In addition to establishing tighter financial controls, the new framework document sets out how the EHRC and Government will work together to increase the EHRC’s transparency to Parliament and the public about how it operates.

There have been signs of progress following action by the Government. The EHRC has reduced its dependence on interim staff and now has fewer than 20 in post. It plans to have no interim staff by 1 April 2013. It is moving swiftly to deliver significant reductions to the cost of its corporate support functions through agreeing arrangements to share back-office services with other organisations. It has set out plans to rationalise its accommodation in the next 12 months, including moving out of its expensive central London offices, which will result in further savings of more than £3 million a year. In November last year, there was a significant sign of progress when its first satisfactory set of accounts were laid before Parliament.

On the telephone helpline, the hon. Lady asked whether there had been an equality impact assessment. An equality policy statement was published by the Home Office in December, and the new service will provide a better service for people from disadvantaged groups than the helpline it is replacing. We want the EHRC to become a valued and respected national institution. To do so, it must focus on the areas in which it alone can add value, and it must be able to demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money. We will respond to the consultation shortly. We will also appoint a new chair shortly. I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will support our plans.[Official Report, 10 May 2012, Vol. 545, c. 1MC.]