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Cuts ‘will leave equality watchdog emasculated’

The equality watchdog’s commissioners are to be asked to approve a programme that will make more than half of its staff redundant.

Union representatives who obtained the plans for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) say the cuts would leave the commission with just a third of the combined staff of the three equality bodies it replaced in 2007.

Commissioners will be asked to reduce staff from 416 posts to just 200, about a third of the staff working for the Disability Rights Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2007.

The figures were given to representatives of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU) by EHRC managers. The union said it believed the cuts would include outsourcing the EHRC helpline, which could lead to about 60 job losses, and the closure of the commission’s regional offices.

The EHRC’s budget for this year, 2010/11, appears to have already been cut from about £62 million to £53 million, and is set to fall to £45 million in 2011/12. Reports suggest it will be slashed to just £22.5 million by 2015.

In a letter calling on their commissioners not to approve the cuts, EHRC staff from the PCSU said they believed the government was “effectively seeking to close the body entrusted by parliament to protect and promote equality and human rights in the UK”.

Mike Smith, chair of the EHRC’s disability committee and an EHRC commissioner, declined to be interviewed about the cuts.

Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP, said she believed the cuts would leave the EHRC “emasculated to such an extent that it will be difficult for it to do its job properly”.

She said she feared it would not be able to carry out its statutory functions, and that much of the good work and practical help for disabled people that was carried out by the DRC was already not taking place.

She said: “Goodness knows what they are going to be able to do now. The body that should be there to speak out about these things will not have the staffing or funding to do so.”

An EHRC spokeswoman said decisions on its future role would be taken “over the next few months”.

But she agreed that the cuts would have a brutal impact on the work it could afford to do.

Another spokeswoman said later: “We aim to spend less on bureaucracy and more on ensuring that government and business act according to the highest standards of equality and human rights.”

In a speech to the Policy Exchange thinktank, Trevor Phillips, the EHRC’s chair, claimed the commission was restructuring in order to do its work “more efficiently, for example using ‘lightning strike’ investigations as well as our more lengthy formal legal inquiries”.

But he suggested that the EHRC would concentrate only on taking legal cases against “the Really Bad Guys, like the BNP” rather than on “individual cases, courtroom battles and remedies after something has happened”.

The Government Equalities Office (GEO) said the government’s review of quangos had concluded that the EHRC would “need to be substantially reformed to focus on its core functions”.

A GEO spokesman said: “All public bodies need to tighten their belts and the commission is no different — in the past it has not been careful enough with taxpayers’ money and that has to change.

“We will shortly be publishing our plans for reform of the EHRC, setting out our plans for the commission’s future.”