Commission issues initial response to government consultation on its powers and duties

20 May 2011

The Equality and Human Rights Commission today issues its first response to the governments consultation on the Commission's powers and duties.

The Commission welcomes the opportunity to build on the achievements of its first three years, and to address the lessons of its start-up phase. However, it warns that some of the proposed changes are likely to lead to greater uncertainty and increased costs for public bodies and businesses; more litigation and less conciliation in discrimination cases; and the undermining of the government's own new equality strategy.

The Board of the Commission supports the government's aim to create a more modern, focused legal mandate; and strongly endorses the need to strengthen the organisational and financial structure of the body. The Board believes that the Commission's financial and operational independence from government must be protected if it is to be an effective regulator and remain a UN-recognised A status Human Rights Institution.

The Commission's principal concerns are:

  • that the governance and financial changes proposed by the government are disproportionate; will involve unnecessarily complicated legal changes and substantial expense to the public purse; distract the Commission from its modernisation programme, which has already reduced its costs considerably; and focus on time-consuming legislative change rather than improved management and accountability
  • that the proposed legal changes to the Commission's powers will increase bureaucracy and make litigation more likely, whilst removing its capabilities to help settle disputes without recourse to law; and that the document fails to reduce the burden of red tape on public bodies and businesses by not addressing the cumbersome and bureaucratic requirements associated with the Commission's investigation and enforcement powers
  • that the document offers no encouragement to modernise equality work. For example, it does not propose innovative approaches to advice and guidance that would involve the voluntary sector and the "Big Society". It does not consider engaging with the government's agenda of localism and increased transparency or consider the new and very different approaches being developed in Wales and Scotland; and it does not explore ways in which the Commission might raise new income streams, in order to boost its independence and lessen the cost of its operations to the taxpayer.

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said:

"We support Ministers' desire for a more focused mandate, and greater effectiveness. We want our equality and human rights work to support Britain's social and economic recovery, not to stand in its way. But the proposals in the government's consultation document as they stand are a missed opportunity to modernise the way that equality law works.

This should be a moment to help the many groups of people who are currently shut out of the labour market by their age or sexual orientation; to continue to force down the pay gap and to increase women's participation at the top of business; and to ensure that organisations like the English and Welsh Defence Leagues do not turn back the clock on the huge progress we've made in community relations.

But instead of modernising the Commission, these proposals risk turning it into an anonymous, cowed, nit-picking compliance factory, remote from the everyday challenges that face ordinary people - the last thing business, the public sector and the victims of discrimination need."

> Find details of our initial response

- Ends -

For more press information contact the Commissions media office on 020 3117 0255, out of hours 07767 272 818.
For general enquiries please contact the Commissions national helpline: England 0845 604 6610, Scotland 0845 604 5510 or Wales 0845 604 8810.

Notes to editors

> Details of the consultation can be found on the Government Equalities Office website

> The Commission's initial response can be downloaded here