The Government’s equality enforcement body has descended into crisis amid reports of a high level bust-up over its direction and financial management.
According to reports, staff want the super-quango to show more teeth in enforcing its equality agenda. Others are unhappy with how money is being spent.
Three senior officials have resigned from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and a fourth is considering his position.
Nicola Brewer, the chief executive, has left for a undisclosed job and Patrick Diamond, head of strategy, has left to join Downing Street as an adviser with immediate effect.
The Times has also learnt that Kay Hampton, one of 17 commissioners, is to step down. She had been chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality.
Disability campaigner, Sir Bert Massie, has also threatened to stand down as a Commissioner.
According to press reports, there is deep unease over the way the Commission spends £70 million a year of taxpayers’ money.
There are also concerns over the direction of the watchdog. Reports claim that some staff think it is not aggressive enough.
The Commission has far-reaching powers to enforce equality duties and support legal actions to “push the boundaries of the law”.
The head of the Commission, Trevor Phillips, is very close to Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, who was his best man.
A senior source told the Observer newspaper that the crisis was partly a reflection of “what’s going on in Government between Mandelson and Harriet Harman, in the Equality Bill”.
In February Business secretary Lord Mandelson suggested the Government sacrifice any planned laws that would be expensive for businesses in light of the financial crisis.
This was widely interpreted to include the Equality Bill which is passionately supported by Deputy Labour Leader, Harriet Harman.
Critics say the Bill will add a further bureaucratic layer of political correctness to businesses.
The Institute of Directors (IoD) says the Government has put the estimated cost to UK businesses of its planned new employment laws at £1 billion per year, with £70.9 million spent on implementing the Equality Bill.
The Government claims the Equality Bill will “de-clutter” existing discrimination laws. But a survey for Personnel Today suggested that more than a third of employers did not think the move would make things clearer.
Christian groups are also concerned that aspects of the Bill will damage religious liberty.
What is the EHRC?
The Equality and Human Rights Commission enforces equality legislation on age, disability, sex, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation and encourages compliance with the Human Rights Act.
According to its website, “the Commission is well equipped to take legal action on behalf of individuals, especially where there are strategic opportunities to push the boundaries of the law.”
And, “the Commission has significant powers to enforce the equalities duties of organisations and authorities, including, ultimately, launching official inquiries and formal investigations.”
It has been criticised for funding atheist group, the British Humanist Association, to run a series of events where known opponents of Christian liberties were invited to train the public in issues of religious freedom.
In September 2008, it failed to give assurance that it would protect Christians expressing their beliefs about sexual ethics after The Christian Institute discovered that one of its senior figures had promised to root out ‘homophobia’ in religion.
It has one Christian Commissioner, former head of the Evangelical Alliance (EA) Joel Edwards, although his appointment was heavily criticised because of EA’s activities in campaigning for Christian freedoms to be protected from the impact of recent gay rights legislation. Other EHRC Commissioners include Ben Summerskill, head of homosexual lobby group, Stonewall.
Calls for the Commission to more closely resemble the Canadian model have raised further concerns. In 2008 Canada’s human rights board fined a Christian pastor for expressing his views about homosexual practice, and banned him from speaking on the issue in future.