Staff at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) took part in the first of two one-hour strikes this week, in protest over threatened redundancies and cuts to its budget.
They claim the commission’s failure to consult properly over its future plans could cause it to breach its own public sector duties under equality laws.
The walkout by members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCSU) on 4 May saw “well-attended” picket lines at the EHRC’s headquarters in London and its offices in Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester.
Other unions, anti-cuts campaigners and politicians joined the picket lines, including members of Disabled People Against Cuts in Birmingham.
A member of the PCSU’s branch executive at the EHRC said their biggest fear was that the cuts would cause the commission to “disappear from the public consciousness” and become “irrelevant”.
She said the EHRC had refused to reveal the detail of its plans for the future, despite “numerous meetings” with union representatives.
She added: “The grounds of our dispute are a failure to consult, a failure to discuss any alternative to what they have proposed.”
She said the union was receiving strong support from disabled people and other EHRC “stakeholders”, many of whom had previously “given up on the commission”.
The EHRC’s budget for 2010/11 appears to have been cut from about £62 million to £53 million, and is set to fall to £45 million in 2011/12, while reports suggest it will be slashed to just £22.5 million by 2015, although the EHRC has described this figure as “completely speculative”.
There could also be a reduction in staff from 416 posts to just 200, which would be about a third of the number of staff working for its three predecessor bodies – the Disability Rights Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission – in 2007.
The PCSU said the cuts would mean employers and public authorities “would no longer be held to account if they carried out discriminatory policies”.
The government is consulting on plans to reduce the EHRC’s duties and responsibilities, including stopping the funding of its grants programme, and commissioning the private or voluntary sector to run its national helpline.
An EHRC spokeswoman said in a statement: “The commission has been in extensive consultation with the PCS for months on issues arising from our own reform programme, which is shaping the commission to be effective for the future, as well as a government-imposed budget cut back and consultation on our powers and duties.”
But she said the union had “decided to withdraw from this process after issuing a list of unrealistic demands”, and added: “The entire public sector is having to take difficult decisions and we cannot give untenable guarantees to staff here.”
No-one from the EHRC was available to discuss the union’s concerns further, but the PCSU said its demands were simply to “ensure they can fulfil their statutory obligations, which we do not think is that outlandish or unrealistic”.
A second PCSU walkout is due on Wednesday 11 May.