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New EHRC chair faces tough task to repair watchdog’s ‘damaged house’

The government’s choice to be the new chair of the equality watchdog faces a tough task to repair an organisation that is damaged almost beyond repair, according to the former chair of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).

The government announced this week that its “preferred candidate” to take over from Trevor Phillips as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was Baroness Onora O’Neill. Baroness O’Neill is a crossbench peer and was previously principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, is an honorary professor of philosophy at Cambridge, and is said to have written widely on equality and human rights.

But Sir Bert Massie, the DRC’s only chair throughout its seven-year existence – before it was merged with other equality organisations to form the EHRC in 2007 – compared her task to “removing the debris” when “part of the house has fallen down and the wind is blowing in”.

The EHRC is planning to cut staff posts from about 250 to just 150 by the end of 2012, down from as many as 525 people after its launch, and its budget is set to fall to £18 million by 2014-15, down from £62 million in 2010-11.

Sir Bert questioned what the EHRC had achieved on disability discrimination, and pointed to levels of unemployment among disabled people that are now seven per cent higher than when the DRC was dismantled. He said: “The EHRC has lost a lot of its powers, it has lost a lot of its budget, and it has lost a lot of its functions. It is fairly hard to compare it with the DRC, which always was a much more dynamic organisation.”

He added: “A lot of disability groups supported the merger [in 2007]. Those who were more cautious thought disability might be downgraded. But what has happened is that the whole EHRC has been downgraded.”

The EHRC’s budget is currently just a few million pounds more than the DRC’s, he said – following government cuts – even though it is dealing with nine different equality strands. He said he was not convinced that the government “really believe in having an equality commission”.

Sir Bert served as an EHRC commissioner for two years, before resigning in 2009 over concerns at Phillips’ leadership. He said Phillips had been a good public speaker, and worked well with the media, but had been a flawed chair, and had failed to stand up to the government.

He also pointed to salaries paid to top EHRC staff that had been twice as high as those paid by the DRC. But he said the Labour government had also put too many of its own supporters onto the commission’s board. He said at the time of his resignation that the EHRC had failed to take up the agenda developed by the DRC, had not allocated sufficient resources to disability, and had done too little on human rights.

Sir Bert said he did not know Baroness O’Neill but was “encouraged” by her background in human rights. But he said disabled people would need the new chair to be able to talk not just about human rights, for issues such as health and social care, but also equality, for employment and education, and would need to be “robust enough to stand up to the government”. He said: “I wish her well but it is going to be difficult.”

The EHRC is also seeking a new deputy-chair and five commissioners, one of whom will chair the commission’s disability committee and will be its disability commissioner.

The decision to recommend Baroness O’Neill was taken by the new Conservative culture secretary, Maria Miller, who until last month was minister for disabled people. The parliamentary joint committee on human rights will now hold a “pre-appointment scrutiny hearing” at which it will question Baroness O’Neill. Miller said the committee’s conclusions would be “considered carefully”, before a final decision was reached on whether to appoint her.

She said: “This is a really important time for the EHRC – strong leadership is vital and the new chair will play a crucial role in ensuring that it remains the valued and respected national institution it was always intended to be. I warmly commend Baroness Onora O’Neill to the committee for this role.”

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