Who protects the protector? The worrying future of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has a statutory remit ‘to promote and monitor human rights; and to protect, enforce and promote equality across the nine “protected” grounds – age, disability, gender, race, religion and belief, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation and gender reassignment’. According to the Commission, a survey carried out by it in 2007 showed that discrimination and disadvantage are still common across Britain. So EHRC states: ‘We don’t all have equal chances in life and some forms of discrimination are complex and deep-rooted. Sometimes people choose to ignore the rights of others even when this is against the law. This is why the Equality and Human Rights Commission is here’.

However the EHRC is now in danger.  It was created in 2007 as an amalgam of the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission (with a gender brief) and the Disability Rights Commission.  It was successful in several recent high profile cases such as actions against the British National Party (BNP) and the Christian owners of a Cornish guesthouse who refused to allow a gay couple to stay together in a double room.  However it has also drawn criticism, in particular from the political right-wing who is against any extensions to equality legislation.  Its future seemed secure when it managed to survive the ‘Bonfire of the Quangos’ of the current coalition government in October 2010.  However a recent Guardian newspaper report suggests that the Commission is under threat once more. ‘Major surgery’ is expected imminently Alan Travis writes, as ‘ministers are expected to say that they want its activities to be restricted to core functions and the management of its finances to be sharply improved’ – in other words cuts. The commission’s modest current £53 million annual budget is already earmarked to be reduced to £45 million next year and much deeper cuts are anticipated by 2015 when the political coalition administration comes to an end.

What cuts will mean is poorer support for equality issues generally and a restriction to the services that EHRC currently offers; particularly at risk are the EHRC helpline and the Commission’s ability to give grants for research and development.  The cuts might  also bring to an end some of the Commission’s legal work such as its support for Sharon Coleman, whose victory in the European Court of Justice ensured that six million carers in Britain gain greater employment protection, although it is said that ‘strategic legal work’ will remain a core function.

What can we do to support the EHRC which is the only statutory body in the UK for gender equality as well as for racial equality and disability rights?  First of all, we need to campaign for its survival – and against the rhetoric that there is no money.  Finances always seem to be available, it seems to me, when it suits government, for example, when they want to pursue an unwanted war or support bankers when they run into trouble. You could also join the demonstration against the cuts on Saturday 26 March in London, which though not specifically about the EHRC, aims to make the point that the money for public services is there – but currently is being used/reserved for something else. For details about the march, visit the Coalition of Resistance website.

(Gaby Weiner, GEA Chair)


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