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Equality and Human Rights Commission

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 1 March 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Griffiths.)

I wish to raise the issue of the funding of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I thank the Minister for agreeing that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) can also address the House. He has valuable experience not only in the trade union arena but in this arena, having served on the board of a predecessor body.

It is pertinent that we discuss this issue today. Not only is it Ash Wednesday and the day when we celebrate the patron saint of the great nation of Wales, but as my good friend Ryan McMullan, a former colleague on Glasgow City Council, told me, it is also Disabled Access Day. Perhaps we can touch on those issues later.

I have been pursuing a debate on this urgent issue, but I am profoundly disappointed at the actions that have created the need for one. As a result of cuts to the funding of the commission, workplace relations have suffered and individual employees have been unfairly treated. This morning I visited the picket line of PCS and Unite members in London who are on their sixth day of industrial action.

That a Government-sponsored, Government-funded body with a remit set by this Parliament with the specific mandate to

“challenge discrimination, promote equality of opportunity and to protect and promote human rights”

should on 9 February 2017 callously sack 10 PCS and Unite members by email while they were on strike and give them less than one day’s notice to clear their desks is unheard of in the public sector.

I am attending tonight’s debate after I was made aware of this very serious situation. Is the hon. Gentleman really telling the House that the body established by the Government to look after, safeguard and monitor the rights of the citizens of this country is acting in such a scandalous way? If it is, does he not think that this is a clear road map of where this Government are taking the trade union movement and its rights in this country?

Yes, I do have concerns about how the Government are conducting industrial relations across the board and about their attacks on the trade union movement, as we saw during the passage of the Trade Union Bill.

The treatment of the workers concerned is not only harsh, but I would argue potentially discriminatory and contrary to everything the organisation is tasked by this House with delivering. By imposing pay in lieu of notice and terminating the employees’ contracts, those employees can no longer actively search for redeployment within their existing organisation or within the civil service where they would get priority access to vacancies.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that this will also be expensive for the public purse? For six months, we will be paying these people to stay at home while, as I understand it, the EHRC will be plugging staffing gaps with expensive consultants.

The hon. Lady serves with me on the European Scrutiny Committee, and she is quite correct in her analysis.

Continuous service has been broken, so if the employee were to secure a job in the civil service, the break would have a directly negative impact on their pension and any future severance pay. I note that two directors were also served notice, but pay in lieu of notice was not imposed and they remain on the payroll. To date, the commission has not offered any of those at risk of compulsory redundancy alternative employment, which is a statutory requirement. I hope that the Minister will confirm today whether he will intervene on this matter and ensure that all those employees, now numbering 12, will be reinstated.

The organisation was set up in the first place through pressure from the trade union and labour movement on human rights and workers’ rights. We have seen two good examples of where the Government are going with Brexit. We have had the Trade Union Bill, which had to be modified through pressure from the Opposition. What do we now expect when the Government come back with their Brexit package and we pull out of Europe? What is going to happen to workers’ rights then, bearing in mind that the Government have done away with legal aid in certain instances?

The hon. Gentleman is correct that concessions were given to the Opposition, but I think the Government are backtracking on them, as we saw in a Delegated Legislation Committee, with trade unions now being forced to have additional conferences to meet requirements in the new legislation.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Will he confirm that another thing on which the Government are backtracking is the funding for this organisation? During a year in which hate crime has doubled in this country, we have seen the funding and staffing of the commission cut by 25%. Does he agree that it is extraordinary that the body that is supposed to be the watchdog on behalf of the Government in respect of disabled people’s rights—it is one of this country’s most important watchdogs—is sacking disabled workers at a day’s notice?

I agree wholeheartedly, and I shall come back to these points in detail later. If the hon. Gentleman would like to intervene again then, I would be more than happy to give way.

I invite Members to look closely at who was chosen for compulsory redundancy and who was then sacked by email, as highlighted in early-day motion 944. Of the 10 sacked members, seven are black or minority ethnic, four are Muslim and six are disabled. I hope that no one will challenge the arithmetic on that, as it is possible to have overlapping identities.

As I understand the situation, one of the dismissed staff members was an Army veteran whose motorised wheelchair was taken away the day after he received his redundancy notice. Three of the sacked members held elected roles on their union’s branch executive committee and one was a trade union negotiator who was leading talks to protect employees from compulsory redundancy.

This issue raises concerns about blacklisting and trade union victimisation throughout the ongoing restructuring process. It is also not difficult to conclude that certain types of employees have been targeted and potentially discriminated against. Not only is that utterly wrong in and of itself, but astonishing that it should come from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The hon. Gentleman is making a really powerful case. Will he comment on the impact that this is likely to have on other employers’ behaviour when they see the body charged with upholding the highest of standards getting away with this kind of conduct?

That is an excellent point. When the commission is seen to be conducting itself in this way, it sends out a very dangerous message to rogue employers.

Will the hon. Gentleman also comment on the impact of these sackings on the Government’s stated aim of halving the disability employment gap in this country, given that five of the sacked people are disabled?

It shows that the Government say one thing in public and do another thing in private. That is the only message that we can take from this.

This is in the realms of “you really couldn’t make it up.” The Government cannot absolve themselves of any responsibility for this surreal situation. Increasingly, ministerial responses on this issue are becoming a little tetchy, and along the lines of, “This isn’t really anything to do with us.” As I have said before, something that is Government sponsored and Government funded is publicly accountable. That is what we are doing today—giving parliamentary scrutiny to an organisation that is not acting in the spirit of its own ethos and stated aims.

The strike was called because people were at risk of compulsory redundancy, even though more than 30 commission vacancies remain unfilled. A restructuring process has been driven by severe budget pressures: a 25% cut over the next four years comes on top of a 70% cut in real terms since 2010. That was confirmed by House of Commons Library research, which was commissioned by the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). The Equality and Human Rights Commission has been described as facing collapse.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, with 25% cuts, there is a risk that human rights legislation will, in all honesty, exist only on paper and that, in fact, human rights will effectively be hollowed out? Will he be pressing the Government to give evidence on that?

I agree with the hon. Lady. It comes back to the point of whether legislation can be enforced. Looking at this in context, we can see a rise in hate crimes and a dramatic reduction in the number of people taking cases to employment tribunals. There has also been a 71% drop in the number of cases challenging sex discrimination, a 58% drop in race discrimination cases, and a 54% drop in disability discrimination cases. Surely that all adds up to a mismatch between workload and resource. When the commission is only employing three caseworkers to provide advice and representation to the victims of discrimination and human rights abuses in England, Scotland and Wales, it calls into question the ability of the organisation to tackle discrimination and enforce the law.

Although the stated strategic aims and objectives of the commission are sound—I particularly agree with the aim of improving capability through investing in its people—there is a huge question mark over organisational capacity, particularly in the light of confirmation of the funding picture for the future. On 24 February, the Government Equalities Office confirmed funding for the remainder of the spending review period until 2019-20. It confirmed that the cuts are to continue and that year-on-year funding is to decline from £20.4 million in 2016-17 to £17.4 million in 2019-20. As the need for support for individuals experiencing discrimination in all its poisonous forms grows, this Government have cut deeper into an already challenged organisation.

I was curious to test the Government’s support for ensuring a sustainable future for the commission, so I tabled a written question last December as to how and whether the Government are publicising the existence of the organisation. The ministerial response was:

“My Department promotes the EHRC’s functions where appropriate in the normal course of its own activities but since 2010 has not spent anything on advertising its services.”

A more suspicious person than myself might suspect the Government of seeking to suppress demand for the commission’s services, making the case for further funding cuts. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will now advertise the commission’s services publicly?

In response to the publicity and scrutiny given as a result of poor handling of its workforce and trade union relationships, it is interesting to note that the commission in its briefing note to Members has stated:

“It would enhance the Commission’s independence if we were able to table reports directly in Parliament”,

and that

“we consider that Parliament should be afforded a greater role in setting the Commission’s budget, as is the case for other independent bodies such as the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and the Electoral Commission.”

I welcome the news that the organisation is open to being held to account for its use of public money by a parliamentary Committee and am interested to hear what the Minister thinks of that proposal. This could provide a way forward, and if the Government were also to take responsibility for resolving the hasty and unorthodox manner in which hard-working, dedicated public servants have been treated, a more positive outcome for the organisation and the individuals concerned could be achieved.

It will be disappointing if the “arm’s length” rationale is deployed again today. It is often used by another organisation I am very familiar with, Glasgow City Council, where all too often the administration’s councillors claim that poor industrial relations and resolving disputes are somehow outwith their control. Budget decisions and damaged employee relations as a result of poor consultation, communication and negotiation are ultimately the responsibility of elected members, whether local or national. Claiming that these issues are decided on and actioned by forces that cannot be held to account, or directed by those of us who are elected by the people, is an exceptionally weak argument.

Fundamentally, what is at stake here is whether equalities and human rights issues are at the heart of the Government’s ethos or not. Actions at the moment are at variance with stated aims and objectives, and many more people in this country stand to be affected if the commission’s capacity to deliver is being run down, whether by accident or design. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) on securing this debate. Like him, for me, combating discrimination and inequality has been a lifelong cause, in my case dating back to my boyhood, when I discovered, to my shock, from my Irish father that when he first arrived in this country seeking lodging houses in Kilburn and Cricklewood, iniquitous signs were put up saying, “No dogs, no Irish.”

For me, this is a cause that I fought in the world of work, taking on bad employers who were discriminating against people, but also challenging practices within the trade union movement. I remember being involved in a battle back in the 1980s against one particular branch of refuse collectors in London who would not allow any black refuse collectors to be employed. We said, “You’re not on,” we took it on, and we changed it.

Likewise, there was the battle within our own ranks to change the image and agenda of the trade union movement on equalities for women. I used to be described in the old T&G as an “honorary sister.” Like the hon. Gentleman, this is a cause that I am passionate about.

In parallel to the big changes that have been won over the last 30 years, there has been the transformation of the image and agenda of politics, and, indeed, the make-up of this place. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) regularly reminds me, when she was first elected to this House its membership was 97% men.

I actively worked with all the predecessor bodies: the Equal Opportunities Commission, challenging those employers denying people equal pay; the Commission for Racial Equality, challenging those employers who were discriminating in employment; and the old Disability Rights Commission, challenging employers who treated disabled workers shamefully, and those who—this happened often—refused to employ disabled workers despite requirements on them, and who failed to adapt workplaces so that disabled workers could fulfil their potential.

Then the Equality and Human Rights Commission was established. I could give numerous examples of its work, but I will give just one. When I was deputy general secretary of the union, we had a big focus on the red and white meat industry, which had 40,000 employees. The main customers were the supermarkets, which were abusing their market power to drive down costs along the supply chain. In factory after factory, that led to a two-tier labour market. There were more and more agency workers—overwhelmingly migrant workers—on poorer conditions of employment, and the number of full-time, directly employed workers on better conditions of employment was falling. That often led to toxic conditions and damaged the social cohesion in workplace after workplace and community after community.

I persuaded the then chair of the commission, Trevor Phillips, to launch an inquiry into that discriminatory pattern in the meat industry. It produced a powerful report, and I will never forget being at the summit that was then convened by the EHRC, at which the commission told the supermarkets that if they did not change their procurement practices and end the shameful discrimination in their supply chain, it would take enforcement proceedings against them. The supermarkets are not all that they should be—that is for absolute certain—but some welcome changes were made. They could not wash their hands of responsibility for what they had created.

My experience of the predecessor bodies and the commission has been that they did not always get it right, did not always do everything I would have liked them to do, and did not always bind others in quite the way I would have liked, but they were powerful, effective champions of equality with a dedicated staff fighting that most noble cause of tackling discrimination.

The position that we have now reached is nothing short of scandalous, just when hate is on the march. It is on the march against black, Asian and ethnic minority people, against the disabled and against women. The signs of what is happening in our country are profoundly disturbing. We have never needed a strong Equality and Human Rights Commission more, but it is now being reduced to a rump of its once great self. It is quite extraordinary that its budget has been reduced from £70 million in 2007 to £17 million now. Likewise, the number of staff is also being reduced to a rump, rendering the commission increasingly ineffective. The staff are being treated shamefully. I know some of the staff in the Birmingham office, including my good friend Zahid Nawaz. He has done outstanding work for the predecessor bodies and the commission for 17 years, but he and others were treated shamefully when they were sacked in circumstances that I would not expect from a bad employer, let alone the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The commission has acted badly and shamefully, and it must think again. It should suspend the dismissal notices issued to the individuals concerned. It should also do something that it has as yet failed to do, which is talk to all the stakeholders with whom it operates about the kind of commission they want for the future. I know, having spoken to some of them, that there is an overwhelming sense of deep concern about what is happening. Fairness and the cause of tackling discrimination demand nothing less.

I turn now to the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), who is a reasonable man. I am not sure that I would say that about every Minister. The Government cannot wash their hands of responsibility for what is happening to the Equality and Human Rights Commission because the enormous cuts that are being made are at the heart of all this. As the hon. Member for Glasgow South West said, the Government cannot talk about their commitment to the principle of equality while at the same time cutting the EHRC, making it more difficult for people to go to employment tribunals and robbing citizens of their ability to have their rights enforced and of the protection of the EHRC, which is needed now more than ever. The commission has a responsibility and it must act, but above all, the Government have the key responsibility and they too should act.

I begin with an apology on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who is unable to respond to this debate due to other business. However, I am here and happy to respond on her behalf. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for securing this important debate. It is timely as it allows me the opportunity to confirm the budget agreed with the EHRC for the remainder of this spending review period, something which has been of interest to many hon. Members.

Before I move on to provide greater detail, I want to take a moment to remind ourselves of the wider context of Government fiscal controls. At the beginning of the last Parliament, as hon. Members will remember, the Government inherited the largest deficit in the post-war period. The EHRC’s position needs to be seen against that background and against the significant spending reductions that apply to central Government, including making over £20 billion of savings by 2019-20. I can confirm that the EHRC’s settlement for this spending review period amounts to a total budget of £20.4 million for 2016-17, £19.3 million for 2017-18, £18.3 million for 2018-19, and £17.4 million for 2019-20, equating to a 25% reduction across the spending review period since 2015-16. Obviously, and as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West made clear, reductions in the EHRC’s budget stretch across a longer timescale than just this spending review. With its settlement now confirmed, the EHRC will have had an approximate budget reduction of 68% between 2010-11 and 2019-20.

If hon. Members give me some time, I will supply some context for the reduction, most of which we did not hear from the hon. Gentleman.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In the context of a current budget deficit of around £68 billion, is he seriously telling the House that cutting the EHRC’s budget by 68% down to £17 million is really necessary or relevant?

The context that I am about to provide will help hon. Members understand in more detail why cuts of that magnitude were appropriate. If the hon. Member for Glasgow South West bears with me, I am sure that I will answer the question that he was about to ask.

First, when the EHRC was set up in 2007, it had an extraordinarily high budget to facilitate the merger of three previous bodies—the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, and the Disability Rights Commission—into a new body. The budget was simply not right for the organisation during its infancy. In 2007, the EHRC had a budget of £70 million, which was an astonishing £20 million more than the combined budgets of the three previous commissions. The EHRC never managed to spend more than £62 million in any year. Indeed it often struggled to spend its allocation, reporting significant and repeated underspends. In June 2010 for instance, the EHRC budget was reduced in-year from £62 million to £55 million. However, the EHRC’s actual expenditure in 2010-11 was £48 million, of which £16.3 million, or 35% of its budget, was spent on its corporate costs.

Secondly, those with longer memories will acknowledge that the organisation was poorly managed at the time and had poor spending controls, as a result of which its first three sets of accounts were all qualified. That inevitably called into question its financial controls and the amount of funding that it should be given.

Thirdly, Members should be aware that the EHRC’s budget reductions have simply reflected changes to its range of functions. A number of significant functions have been repealed, or are no longer funded, to help it concentrate on its core remit. Most notably, the EHRC has stopped its large grants programmes, which had been mismanaged and cost several million pounds. The EHRC also lost its helpline, which cost £2.5 million a year, and its conciliation role in service provision. Those functions ceased in 2012-13 and were costed at £10.1 million or 21% of the EHRC’s budget at the time.

Those changes were considered in the review of public bodies conducted by the Government in 2010, and it was decided that the EHRC should be “retained but substantially reformed”. In March 2011, the coalition Government accordingly set out plans to reform the EHRC in the consultation document “Building a Fairer Britain: Reform of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.”

The current Prime Minister, who at the time was Minister for Women and Equalities along with her Liberal Democrat coalition partner Lynne Featherstone, set out proposals

“to transform the Equality and Human Rights Commission into a valued and respected national institution.”

A comprehensive budget review was set up in 2012 to identify the minimum level of funding needed for the commission to discharge its statutory functions effectively, in accordance with the provisions of the Equality Act 2006. The review concluded that steady state funding of £17.1 million would be adequate for the commission to continue to fulfil its statutory functions.

The Minister seems to be suggesting that the £17.4 million budget for 2019-20 is only to support the commission’s core statutory functions, which I understand is the direction of travel. Will he confirm that, in previous years, the commission received up to £7.8 million of funding to support its wider functions?

The EHRC is receiving money in excess, although modestly so, of the minimum amount regarded as necessary to support its statutory functions. The hon. Gentleman is correct.

I understand the Minister’s point about focusing the commission on its statutory and strategic functions, but how can he be confident that it has the resources to do that well when we know that many local authorities are failing to comply with the public sector equality duty and that the Government are the subject of a number of significant criticisms from UN bodies for failing to comply with our obligations under socioeconomic and other rights treaties?

Work was undertaken in the last Parliament to assess the minimum level of adequate funding necessary to ensure that the commission is in a position to discharge its statutory functions. As I said earlier, the review concluded that steady state funding of £17.1 million would be adequate.

The hon. Member for Glasgow South West mentioned staffing reductions, which I recognise is also a concern of other hon. Members. As an independent body, it is for the EHRC to determine the level and structure of its staffing, which includes defining the appropriate grading and staff numbers. The commission has had to make difficult decisions in order to deliver value for money in its use of public funds while also ensuring that it is furnished with the right complement of skills and experience. Once the commission has concluded its restructuring under the target operating model, the total number of posts will be 179.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) asked about the impact of the EHRC’s restructuring on the Government’s goal of halving the disability employment gap. In terms of actual redundancies, the restructuring affects six disabled staff members. More widely, the EHRC retains good links with disabled groups, is continuing its work on disability issues and is working with disabled groups specifically to improve its enforcement work on disability discrimination cases.

The Government are also working generally to combat hate crime. Other hon. Members asked about the impact of the restructuring on the commission’s ability to deal with instances of hate crime. The Government are working generally with the police to provide a breakdown of data on religion-based hate crime to help them target resources and increase understanding. We recently published the hate crime action plan, in July 2016, and are now delivering locally based projects to tackle hate crime. We have announced additional funding for communities to increase reporting, with £2.4 million to protect places of worship and £900,000 to support community projects. We are engaging with groups to ensure we understand the public’s experience of hate crime and make it easier for victims to come forward.

Let me turn specifically to points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). Although the EHRC needs to have due regard to fostering good relations, it is not a criminal enforcement agency, as he knows, and it has no role in prosecuting offenders or ensuring compliance with the law in this area. Therefore there will be no impact on the Government’s ability to tackle hate crime.

The Minister is saying that the commission does not have duties in terms of dealing with criminal behaviour, but he has yet to comment on how staff were treated. They were dismissed with one day’s notice and told to clear their desks. Does he believe that that is appropriate?

I will take another intervention on the same point and then I will deal with one from the hon. Member for Pontypridd.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I just want to add to what my hon. Friend said. The Minister seemed to be alluding to a strategic review of what the commission needs to do to carry out its core work, so how does sacking people by email and sending them home comply with the strategic review? There is no way that can be a skills-based assessment.

Turning to the points about restructuring, hon. Members will know that the EHRC has followed a multi-staged process, to mitigate the impact of job losses on all staff, including consideration of those with protected characteristics. The commission is confident that the processes undertaken to date have been fair, evidence-based and transparent. Trade unions have been extensively consulted to offer every alternative to compulsory redundancy, where possible. Despite that, they have called five strikes in recent months.

Happily, the EHRC is no longer the focus for the tabloids’ wrath. Its accounts have not been qualified for five years. It has provided respected policy interventions on stop and search; the treatment of religion in the workplace; and pregnancy and maternity discrimination. It has intervened successfully to help enforce the Equality Act and human rights at the European Court of Human Rights.

I am grateful to the Minister, who is being very generous in taking interventions and is trying to answer our questions. However, in so doing he is making our case for us, because he has just admitted that six of the people who are being sacked are disabled, which will clearly add to the disability employment gap. In conceding that we are seeing a rising tide of hate crime, despite the fact that we have this commission, he is surely making the point that the £17 million it currently has to support its work is inadequate.

The hon. Gentleman needs to look at the EHRC’s restructuring in the context of its ability to carry out its broader work to support people with disabilities and to ensure that their rights are not affected by their disabilities in terms of their ability to access opportunities in the workplace.

As the National Audit Office notes, the EHRC

“has responded to its budget reductions in a number of ways”,

and it is increasingly working in partnership with other organisations and being more selective in the legal cases it takes on, taking on cases with the potential for the most impact and thereby enhancing its overall effectiveness. We are working with the EHRC to increase its effectiveness further. We share the view that members of the Women and Equalities Committee expressed in January: the EHRC should play to its unique strengths and powers, as provided in its legislative framework, by making more selective legal interventions and leaving the research to other bodies that can already fulfil that function.

The Minister is being very generous in giving way. He must appreciate the anger felt by Opposition Members about how staff were treated—they were effectively sacked by email. Will he confirm that the commission will be given some human resources and personnel advice and expertise by Government Departments? Is he going to intervene regarding the concerns we have about those staff who have been sacked?

We are satisfied that the EHRC has conducted its restructuring in an appropriate manner. It has consulted all the relevant partner bodies, as required.

I understand that the EHRC chair, David Isaac, shares the objective of the commission sticking to its legislative framework—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Griffiths.)

I was just in the process of delivering my concluding sentence. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities look forward to working constructively with the chair, David Isaac, and his board in the years to come, to the overall benefit of equalities and human rights in this country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.