Hands raised at a conference.

Leaving a more resilient EHRC

by David Isaac

Published: 06 Aug 2020

Four years as chair, three prime ministers, two elections, one global pandemic, and Brexit. It’s been a period of monumental change for the UK. Those four years have also seen the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Windrush scandal, the #MeToo movement, the murder of George Floyd and the increased profile of Black Lives Matter in this country.

These and other developments continue to have a profound effect on us all, and bring into sharp focus the importance of equality and human rights for everyone’s daily lives.

I am proud to have led the EHRC during this often turbulent time, and am pleased that we have used our voice and powers to speak out on the issues arising from these events. During my term, the breadth of our activities has encompassed a wide range of human rights and equality issues, from work on employment, sexual harassment and freedom of expression, to strengthening human rights protections in the lead-up to Brexit.

I am proud to have led the EHRC during this often turbulent time

We have become a stronger and more visible organisation in England, Scotland and Wales. Over the last four years, I’m particularly proud that we have seen a significant increase of over 40% in our enforcement activity and casework. Taking on more cases and investigations than ever, we are now unafraid to speak out and to hold people and other organisations to account.

I am especially pleased that we responded quickly to the global pandemic and provided leadership on the equality and human issues arising from coronavirus. As a result, we were able to address the urgent needs of people with protected characteristics affected by the virus and the country’s response to it.

Woman walking past closed shop with face mask on.

I’m also proud that the Commission and its dedicated staff have risen to these very specific challenges while maintaining the broad remit of our ongoing work, all against a continuing backdrop of major funding challenges.

As Chair, I am the first to acknowledge that with restricted resources we haven’t always been able to take action in all the areas that we would have wished. Nonetheless, we have achieved a lot over the last four years and I would like to highlight a few areas that are worth special mention.

Using our legal powers to change lives

Using our regulatory powers to change people’s lives is at the heart of what we do. Some key cases stand out for me as examples of how we have delivered for the people that we represent:

  • We supported Doug Paulley, who successfully sued FirstGroup Bus Company after being refused a wheelchair space on a bus. This landmark case went all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that bus companies must end ‘first come, first served’ policies and do more to support wheelchair users.
  • We helped Sandeep and Reena Mander, who were told that, despite being suitable adoptive parents, they should not apply as only White children were available and so White couples would be prioritised.
  • We supported Gary Smith, who was denied disability pay by his employer after having a heart attack.
  • We supported Unison to help thousands of women in low-income jobs access their right to justice. The Supreme Court ruled that making people pay tribunal fees in discrimination cases was unlawful and discriminatory.

We have also used our inquiry and investigation powers more than ever before. Our investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party will report after I step down. We will continue to monitor the outcome of the Singh investigation into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party to determine whether we should undertake our own investigation in due course. I am confident that our strength as a regulator will only increase, and that we will continue to send a clear message to those who would breach equality and human rights laws.

Tackling racial injustice

I’m proud that we published ‘Healing a divided Britain’ in 2016 – the biggest ever review into race equality in Britain. It analysed how racial injustice can pervade every aspect of a person’s life. The report revealed that a range of race inequalities needed to be addressed urgently, and that young Black people were the worst affected.

Black university student with backpack.

On these issues, we’ve been calling for a response from government ever since. I have done so again recently, since it seems to me this is a moment of great opportunity for the government and our society. We are at a tipping point: COVID-19, the Windrush scandal, the murder of George Floyd and the lessons in British history provided by Bristol’s Edward Colston have rightly resulted in increased public and media awareness of inequality and the fact that much more needs to be done to promote the wellbeing of Black people in this country.

I sense uncertainty in some quarters about the reality of institutional racism. While economic inequality is a defining factor in limiting the life chances and opportunities of people from all backgrounds, it is clear that such inequality is compounded by negative attitudes toward race, even when those attitudes are not overtly racist and are unconsciously – rather than deliberately – entrenched into organisational behaviours.

Much more needs to be done to promote the wellbeing of Black people in this country

The ‘hostile environment’ policy was one of the most egregious policies in recent times. I am pleased that the Commission decided to use its powers to investigate the Home Office so that lessons can be learned about how equality issues must be factored into decision-making by public bodies in the future.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted a range of entrenched equality issues across the country. Our recently announced inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities will work with race equality leaders to help us to develop clear, evidence-based recommendations to address the disproportionate loss of lives and livelihoods.

Even with considerably reduced resources, the Commission must continue to speak out loudly on race inequality. As a journalist pointed out recently, the Commission has been in the unenviable position of speaking out on these issues without any Black commissioners. It is the government that ultimately selects our Commissioners, but it is clear to me that, at all levels, the EHRC must look more like the people that we seek to represent

Tackling prejudice against disabled people

When I was appointed Chair, I was determined that the EHRC should do more to support disabled people. What I found was that disabled people are treated like second-class citizens. Our legal and inquiry work has done a lot to try to address these disparities. Our Disability Advisory Committee has become a crucial sounding board for developing EHRC strategy and holding Commissioners to account to ensure that the rights of disabled people are considered in all that we do.

Human rights work

As the UK left the EU in January, our priority as a National Human Rights Institution was clear: to maintain and strengthen Britain’s status as a world leader in equality and human rights. We have worked closely with other bodies across the UK to set out practical solutions to prevent any erosion of people’s human rights and particularly to mitigate the loss of the protections of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

I’ve said many times that the tone of the Brexit debate left a lot to be desired. Political rhetoric reached new levels of antipathy and divisions across society have sadly increased. It’s important to bring people back together as the Brexit transition period comes to an end and we continue to tackle the challenges of COVID-19.

As we do so, we must not forget what we learnt early on in the pandemic: that we are all interdependent and that we all are stronger if everyone has the opportunity to reach their potential.

I am particularly proud of the work we have accomplished in our position as Chair of the Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions. This group agreed that we should focus on LGBT issues during our tenure. It’s vital that that the Commonwealth has a strong network of people to defend and promote the rights of LGBT people. I am confident that our work has put the Forum on a sustainable footing for a long-term future. We have increased its ability to speak out, and for all members to share and learn from each other to deliver our important work across the whole Commonwealth.

Competing rights

The rise of identity politics has led to an increased awareness of individual rights but also to an increasingly strident and polarised public discourse, inflamed by the negative effects of social media. The Commission has faced, and will continue to face, some challenging issues where different rights are perceived to collide.

Whether the issues relate to teaching schoolchildren about the legal existence of lesbian and gay families, or the access of transgender men and women to toilets or women-only spaces, we have an important role to play in encouraging conversations, promoting careful listening to the deeply-held views of others, and maintaining a dialogue to establish both improved understanding and mutual respect. This approach does not, of course, provide easy answers for the most complex questions, but it does allow us to work on areas of commonality.

The future

I hope the EHRC will continue to stand up for what is right and to take strong action without fear or favour when necessary. It seems inevitable that the impact of COVID-19 will be with us for a very long time; as future lockdowns and competition for limited resources create new issues for governments, we need to ensure that equality and human rights are considered in all future responses.

As future lockdowns and competition for limited resources create new issues for governments, we need to ensure that equality and human rights are considered in all future responses

As I sign out as Chair, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our talented staff for all their hard work in supporting the Board to transform the EHRC. I would also like to thank our stakeholders and partners for their support. Their work and views have informed and strengthened everything we do.

I look forward to seeing the Commission go from strength to strength, and feel sure that under the leadership of my successor it will continue to do all it can to defend the values of freedom, compassion and justice.  Whatever challenges our country faces in the future, I am confident that the EHRC will do its utmost to realise Britain’s full potential as a leading force in equality and human rights on the world stage.