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All change?! / 7 April 2009

Only eighteen months down the road and people are already abandoning the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) like the proverbial sinking ship!

The chief executive, Nicola Brewer, is heading for pastures new along with the organisation's group director for strategy, Patrick Diamond. Commissioner Kay Hampton has already departed, and now our old mate Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission and one of the 16 commissioners who run the body has said that he also might resign - depending on who was appointed to replace Brewer as chief executive.

What’s this Bert? I thought you were in there for the long haul, representing us crips and holding our end up amongst the other areas of equality? Trouble is, Bert, you’re one of the few allies that we have in the EHRC who has the experience of working within an organisation of this type, especially one that’s wallowing in its own bureaucracy. You and your team did a pretty good job at the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) after all, so we’ve had an inkling of what you’re really made of. Don’t you think it’s about time you took off those kid gloves, stopped holding the corporate line and started a bit of old fashioned scrapping?!

Admittedly Bert is not the only high profile crip involved with the EHRC. We also have Jane Campbell as a commissioner and others on the EHRC’s Disability Committee. I know that they all work hard in lots of other areas, but this is a pretty important issue at the moment and we could do with them speaking out a bit louder. We’ve lost that feisty campaigning in which the DRC used to indulge (we sometimes didn’t particularly like some of the approaches they took, but at least it was there – commenting, taking a pop at those who weren’t doing things right, arbitrating, pushing the boundaries, developing policy and good practice and being pretty focussed for the most part).  There was at least a sense that it was a cohesive organisation on a mission.  The other individual Commissions were also on the case in all sorts of ways. 

Bert is on record as saying that there is mounting anxiety within the EHRC that the commission is not performing as well as it might, and that there is a general unease about the direction it‘s going. This begs the question, who’s steering the bloody thing if it’s not him and the other commissioners then?!  It seems to be the case that the organisation is spending too much time examining its own navel (and apparently wrangling over the state of that navel) rather than listening to their ‘constituency’, rolling up their sleeves and getting on with the job in the very public way that is needed?  One of its major failures is a complete lack of effective, high profile campaigning.

Sources close to the organisation said there was also unhappiness about the style of leadership shown by controversial chair Trevor Phillips, especially about some of his comments on race. If you remember, he was widely criticised by race organisations in January when he called for an end to the use of the term "institutionalised racism" (perhaps he meant to call for an end to actual institutionalised racism and got confused?!)

All this is happening at a particularly unfortunate time as any moment now the government will publish its equality bill and there’s already been disquiet about what’s in it and what’s likely to be left out. And this is the legislation that is designed to streamline the country's anti-discrimination legislation and set out the government's equality agenda, don’t forget ... oops!

Listening to other crips, it seems that another key area of concern is the changes that the EHRC has introduced with regard to its role as a regulator. There now seems to be more of an emphasis on ‘fairness’ and much less focus on ‘equality’ or ‘discrimination’.  However, as one anonymous, equality lawyer put it “Unfortunately the problem with 'fairness' is that, unlike equality, it has no basis in law”.  And fairness is more about trying not to upset anyone, judging by their approach, rather than ranting against discrimination. Which sort of defeats the object of having set up the Commission in the first place I would have thought.

Or am I missing something?!



14 April 2009

Come on folks ... let's have a few thoughts from you this issue!