Equality and Human Rights Commission

Scope of the Inquiry

The Committee takes evidence from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Chair and Chief Executive. Theses sessions focus on the effectiveness of the EHRC, including how they are enforcing the law where there is clear evidence of discrimination.

 

Oral Evidence Session: 25th October 2017

Committee

Purpose of the session

MPs to ask questions on various aspects of the Commission's work, including its duties and powers, strategic role, performance, staffing and expenditure.

The Women and Equalities Committee questions the Equality and Human Rights Commission to consider its impact 10 years since it was formed. 

Earlier this month, its Chair, David Isaac, called for the Commission to be given more powers to enforce equality legislation.

Witnesses

  • David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission
  • Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

 

Questions from Philip Davies MP:

Q13          Philip Davies: David, could I ask you about the decision to abolish the disability commissioner, which has clearly caused a great deal of unhappiness, not least with Lord Shinkwin? First of all, can I just check if he is now attending board meetings, because he made it clear that he was not going to attend any until the matter had been resolved to his satisfaction?

David Isaac: He is not attending board meetings.

Q14          Philip Davies: There are two things I want to ask you to give some clarity on. One is the process for abolishing the disability commissioner and the second is the timescales that were involved when these decisions were made. Could you set out precisely when these decisions were made and the process that was followed in abolishing the disability commissioner?

David Isaac: In relation to the appointment of Lord Shinkwin, can I just be clear that the appointment is made by the Secretary of State?

Q15          Chair: Sorry, when the job was advertised, what position was advertised?

David Isaac: There is a lot of detail, which I can perhaps go into. The position was, when the vacancies on the board of the commission were advertised, one of the potential vacancies was for a disability commissioner.

Philip Davies: That is what he applied for.

David Isaac: He, among others, applied for that particular position. The decision that the board of the commission has made is to mainstream disability into the work of the commission.

Q16          Philip Davies: Yes, we know what decision has been made. What I am trying to get to is when that decision was made and what process you went through to reach that decision.

David Isaac: The panel made various recommendations to the Secretary of State, in relation to particular potential commissioners including Lord Shinkwin. Lord Shinkwin has obviously chosen to make public some of this detail, which otherwise would be confidential. I am proceeding on the basis that you are asking me these questions and, therefore, I am answering frankly. During the period when we made the recommendations to the Secretary of State, there was a considerable delay. During that period, the sunset clause in relation to our statutory disability committee kicked in and the statutory disability committee came to an end at the end of March this year. At that point, there had been considerable discussion by the board and with stakeholders about the disability commissioner role being abolished. Not until the eve of purdah did the Secretary of State make a decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin. At that point, the board was minded to abolish the disability commissioner.

Q17          Philip Davies: At what point was the board minded?

David Isaac: The actual decision by the board to abolish the disability commissioner, the formal decision, was not made until a board meeting after Lord Shinkwin had been appointed.

Q18          Philip Davies: When had you decided it should be abolished?

David Isaac: At the time when we were discussing the abolition of the statutory disability committee, we had decided that, in reality, it was important to mainstream disability into our new domain approach. It would be important that all of the commissioners, and there are a number of other commissioners who are disabled, would represent disability.

Q19          Philip Davies: That is interesting because, on 27 March, you attended a meeting, it seems, with the Secretary of State, where the Secretary of State confirmed the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin, with you there.

David Isaac: That was as a general commissioner.

Q20          Philip Davies: It also goes on to say here that, at that meeting, you said that you had gone to the final meeting of the disability committee the day before and they were anxious about there being no one in the disability commissioner role currently.

David Isaac: It is probably important to say that, while the board of the commission had resolved in principle to abolish the disability commissioner role, there were various voices—and some, it has to be said, on the statutory disability committee—who had anxieties about that. That is pretty well known, but we as the board of the commission took the view that, given that the disability statutory committee was coming to an end, we wanted to and are now mainstreaming disability. For that reason, the disability commissioner role was abolished.

Q21          Philip Davies: That was not part of the discussion. You knew that the committee was coming to an end, at the end of March, about three days after your meeting with the Secretary of State, and yet you made it clear that the disability committee were anxious about there being no one in the disability commissioner role. You knew that the disability committee wanted to keep a disability commissioner. It also happens that, at that meeting, “The challenges facing recruiting somebody to the role were discussed”, along with “the balance between having a fresh pair of eyes and the credibility of having demonstrated long-term commitment to campaigning on disability issues”, and, it says here, “David agreed”. There was no suggestion at this point that that role was going to be abolished, even though you knew that the disability committee was coming to an end a few days later.

David Isaac: That is not correct. Certainly in so far as the statutory disability committee was concerned, it knew that the disability commissioner role was likely to be abolished and there was anxiety about how disabled people would be represented in the work of the commission going forward. It is not the case that the statutory disability committee did not know that the board was minded to abolish the disability commissioner post.

Q24          Philip Davies: What does the disability committee think about this?

David Isaac: As you have alluded to, some initially were unhappy and needed to understand our rationale, but the position is that, at the final meeting of the disability committee and in subsequent meetings of that body, they understood the commission’s approach and they approved of mainstreaming.

Q25          Philip Davies: Why is it that, at this meeting after the final meeting of the disability committee, you told the Secretary of State that they were anxious about there being no one currently in the disability commissioner role?

David Isaac: It is not a secret that some people were concerned about the abolition of the disability commissioner post. Since that particular period in time we have made people comfortable with the fact that disability is mainstreamed and there is no longer a disability commissioner. The important thing in relation to Lord Shinkwin was that he was recommended as a general commissioner by the panel. This is information that has been communicated to him. He was appointed by the Secretary of State as a general commissioner, and it was only Lord Shinkwin having attached these conditions to his engagement with the commission that has resulted in him failing to attend board meetings. I am very keen that Lord Shinkwin should engage with the commission. He is taking up an important commissioner post, which we currently cannot fill. I would suggest that that is having an adverse impact on our ability to mainstream disability and to do our work in the disability arena.

Q26          Philip Davies: It is not unreasonable for somebody to apply for a position, to be appointed to it and then expect that position to be in place, is it? It is not an unreasonable expectation if you apply for a particular post, you are appointed to a particular post and then you are told subsequently, “Oh actually, do you know what? That post that you applied for and that you were appointed to does not exist any more”.

David Isaac: It is not if the period between the application and the appointment is so long that, during that period, the statutory disability committee has expired and the board has taken the decision, in principle, that the disability commissioner post no longer exists.

Q29          Philip Davies: Hold on a minute. This completely flies in the face of the meeting that you had with the Secretary of State. It says quite clearly here, in the notes of that meeting before the end of March, “The Secretary of State confirmed the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin”.

David Isaac: Yes, but that was as a general commissioner.

Q30          Philip Davies: No, hold on a minute. It then goes on to say, following on from that—this was obviously good news—“David said that he went to the final meeting of the disability committee yesterday and they were anxious about there being no one in the disability commissioner role currently”. You do not have to be a genius to work out that you were the one who was linking the two things together. It was at this meeting. It is quite clear that the Secretary of State was appointing Lord Shinkwin to be the disability commissioner.

David Isaac: No, that is not correct.

Philip Davies: This is what you were discussing at the meeting.

David Isaac: No, it is not correct.

Q31          Philip Davies: So this is inaccurate. The records of your meeting are inaccurate.

David Isaac: I do not believe that that is what that record actually says.

Philip Davies: It does.

David Isaac: I think you are inferring.

Philip Davies: No, I am not inferring. I am reading out what it says, word for word.

Rebecca Hilsenrath: It is a matter of fact and of record that the panel did not recommend him to be appointed as a disability commissioner and the Secretary of State did not appoint him as a disability commissioner.

Philip Davies: Hold on a minute.

Rebecca Hilsenrath: Can I just go on to answer the Chair’s question?

Q32          Philip Davies: No, I do not want you to go on and answer anything else at the minute. Heidi Allen, my colleague, asked a parliamentary question about this, to which she got a reply. Let me get this straight. Are you denying that the Secretary of State confirmed the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin before the end of March? Are you denying that? At this meeting, it says quite clearly here, “The Secretary of State confirmed the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin”.

David Isaac: I have to say I do not have sight of the papers.

Q33          Philip Davies: Did she confirm that to you before the end of March?

David Isaac: The Secretary of State made the appointment of Lord Shinkwin as a general commissioner on the eve of purdah. That is what I know.

Q34          Philip Davies: I am not asking that. I am asking you, at the end of the meeting before the end of March, whether she confirmed to you the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin, yes or no.

Chair: Can I point out that what Mr Davies is referring to is a note that we have been given, not by the Government. I have to be clear on that.

David Isaac: I have not had sight of this, which is why I am hesitating.

Q35          Philip Davies: It does not matter whether you have had sight of it or not. I am asking you a factual question. Before the end of March, did you attend this meeting with the Secretary of State, where she confirmed the decision to appoint Lord Shinkwin?

David Isaac: She made it clear that she was minded to appoint Lord Shinkwin as a general commissioner.

Q36          Philip Davies: Thank you very much. In your answer to Heidi Allen, when she asked about the decision to abolish the role of disability commissioner, the answer that she got back from the chief executive said that the board formally agreed on 11 May that the role of the disability commissioner should cease. If Lord Shinkwin was appointed or you were told that he was going to be appointed before the end of March, by definition, seeing as you had not decided to abolish the job until 11 May according to what you have said, he must have been appointed to be the disability commissioner, because the decision to abolish that post was not made until 11 May.

Rebecca Hilsenrath: Sorry, just to make it clear, the decision not to appoint Lord Shinkwin as disability commissioner was not directly related to the fact that the post had been abolished. That was the recommendation of the panel, which was accepted by the Secretary of State, to appoint him as a general commissioner. Those things are matters of record. It has nothing to do with the fact that the role itself was abolished. It was abolished by a formal decision on 11 May, but that came at the tail end of a very long process, during which the commission and board reflected, reviewed, consulted, looked at the governance arrangements going forward and came to a view that was formally noted on 11 May.

Philip Davies: He applied for a job as the disability commissioner.

David Isaac: He did among others, correct.

Philip Davies: That was advertised as a disability commissioner.

David Isaac: Correct.

Q37          Philip Davies: The decision was made to appoint him before 28 March. You knew that decision was going to be made before 28 March, when the position still existed.

David Isaac: Correct.

Philip Davies: It was only abolished two months later and you are telling me that he was never intended to be appointed as a disability commissioner. To be perfectly frank, I just do not believe what you are saying. It just does not make any sense.

David Isaac: I am sorry, it does make sense, in the sense that you need to take an incremental view. I have not seen that note of the meeting with the Secretary of State, but the reality was that she did indicate that she was minded to appoint Lord Shinkwin. The view was that she was minded to appoint him as a general commissioner. The panel, as I said, recommended that he should be appointed as a general commissioner, because of the change to the statutory committee and the consultations that had actually taken place in relation to the future of the disability commissioner role. I think you are conflating two different things.

Q48          Philip Davies: Can I just ask, before I move on to something else, if you have ever put any pressure on Lord Shinkwin about how he should vote in the House of Lords on any particular issue, in that it should it be in line with the view of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, or anything like that?

David Isaac: I absolutely have not. We have had discussions about potential conflicts of interest in relation to the way in which Peers who are members of the commission discuss their voting record and their voting intentions with the commission to avoid surprises. That is something that has worked in the past, but we are not and would never seek to influence a decision by a Peer.

Q49          Philip Davies: This governance framework is really not worth the paper it is written on any more. Is that what you are saying as well? Obviously, in there it says that you are going to have a disability commissioner and the disability commissioner will act as an effective ambassador in support of the commission’s aims, in particular in relation to disability. That is in your EHRC governance.

David Isaac: That is a historic document, is it not?

Rebecca Hilsenrath: Like all governance frameworks, it is subject to revision. In fact, that has been updated. I think the latest amendments are in the process of being formalised and will be on the website.

Q50          Philip Davies: We will get a new one in due course. If I could just move on to something else, you have trumpeted all these wonderful things that you have been doing on behalf of different groups and organisations. I just wondered what evidence there was that the changes in the law that you have secured have stopped discrimination in people’s day-to-day lives.

Rebecca Hilsenrath: I think we could talk about the impact of the work that we have done in three different areas, if that is helpful to you. I am happy to come back to them. We have a clear strategic influence. An example of that was our race report, which we published just over a year ago, which prompted the Prime Minister to undertake the race disparity audit, the findings of which were published last month. On a more case-by-case basis, we have had a number of significant successes in the court recently, which have led to the improvement of lives across a number of groups of individuals in a number of areas. I could cite the UNISON case in relation to ET fees. When fees were imposed at employment tribunals, we saw discrimination cases fall within the region of 50% across all protected characteristics. The fact that fees are no longer payable means that twice as many people who are suffering discrimination are going to be able to take cases to tribunal. We have done a lot of work internally, since our reorganisation last year, to change the way we work, and have improved measurement models and evaluation frameworks, so that what we do can more easily show measured success and impact across a number of indicators. I am happy to talk to that in detail.

Q51          Philip Davies: The problem I have is that you do not really seem to practise what you preach as an organisation. The last time you came before the Committee, you may recall that you were unable to answer a number of questions. One of them was how many complaints you had from your own staff about discrimination. We asked you to send through a list. It is pretty excessive really, the number of discrimination claims made by members of your own staff to you as an employer. It is rather bizarre, is it not? You could not make it up really. If we go through these, in 2010-11, there was a legal victory for a pregnant woman in the armed forces, where a female officer brought a case against the RAF, in which she claimed she had been removed from her job and had her promotion prospects delayed because she was pregnant. You trumpeted that. In the very same year, your organisation settled a maternity claim for one of your employees who was before an employment tribunal. You then go on about Dixon-Wilkinson v. Central Bedfordshire Council, and the fact that the council unlawfully discriminated against the couple’s son in the provision of education and associated services, by refusing to make transport available to enable him to participate in an after-school club. In the very same year as you did that, you had a disability reasonable adjustment grievance upheld and a disability discrimination case settled before the employment tribunal, not to mention further cases settled before them in 2013 and again in 2015, on reasonable adjustments. In 2013-14, you say that you have done all of these things to make equal pay, make sure people are paid the same and all the rest of it. Yet in 2014, you had an equal pay grievance upheld against your own organisation. Where is the evidence that, as an organisation, you practise what you preach? You trumpet all of these changes in the law and all these cases you are taking up while, at the very same time, you are being rumbled by your own staff for actually doing the things that you are trumpeting that you are taking other people to task for.

Rebecca Hilsenrath: Like any other organisation, of course we have grievances against us and of course we face employment tribunal claims.

Philip Davies: These are upheld.

Rebecca Hilsenrath: I do not say that with any pride. It is an inevitability. It is obviously important that we have processes by which people can raise concerns. I would say that, over the course of the last few years, the number of grievances and the number of claims have fallen very steeply. That is as a result of change of leadership and change within the organisation. We are currently facing a number of employment tribunal claims, as a result of further redundancies in the reorganisation last year, which followed among other things the cuts made under the spending review. That is not something I welcome and it is something that we are looking at going forward, but it is not something that will come as a surprise to anybody looking at a public sector organisation dealing with reorganisation and redundancies. I believe I am right in saying that, at the moment, we only have a single grievance, which is actually linked to one of those claims. The number of grievances in the organisation has fallen very sharply indeed.

Q52          Philip Davies: How long have you been at the organisation?

Rebecca Hilsenrath: Nearly four years.

Q53          Philip Davies: Are you not embarrassed that your body, which is given taxpayers’ money to supposedly stamp out discrimination in the workplace, has such an appalling record of discrimination in the workplace? Are you not embarrassed about that?

Rebecca Hilsenrath: I am actually very proud of the changes that have taken place at the EHRC, while I have been there and while David has been there. We have seen these claims falling. We published our gender pay gap this year; we do not have a gender pay gap. Women are paid, on average, 8.2% more than men and 7.5% on a mean basis.

Q54          Philip Davies: That is a gap, is it not?

Rebecca Hilsenrath: It is a gap, and it reflects the fact that we have a number of women appointed to senior roles within the commission, which obviously impacts on pay. We also have figures in relation to disability and ethnicity, which we need to address, but they are not large. Our disabled members of staff do not have a pay gap on a median measure. On a mean measure, it is 6.6%. On ethnicity we have a 2.3% gap in favour of ethnicity on a mean basis, and 6.6% on a median basis. Our figures compare favourably if you look at the breakdown of our workforce against the Civil Service, and the Civil Service itself compares favourably against the rest of the country. There is nothing in the way we run our organisation that I have to be ashamed of at all. I am very proud of the way that we work.

David Isaac: It was a point that, Mr Davies, you made last time in relation to the way in which the commission needs to be an exemplar. I took what you said very seriously and, as Rebecca has made clear, this is a work in progress. Most of the figures that you refer to are historic. We flagged when we saw you in January the change programme that we were involved in. I am confident that, moving forward, things are improving, but it is a work in progress. Your point that we are an exemplar is a really important one, which we are working hard to address.

Rebecca Hilsenrath: I have recently asked my senior staff to take forward a really important programme on positive action. We have just set up new internships and work experience schemes for 2018, specifically targeted at students and pupils from the BME community and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, with a view to having them come into the commission and work with us during next year. That is one of a raft of initiatives that we are undertaking to improve our work in this area and to make us the exemplar organisation that David wants us to be.

Q57          Philip Davies: Finally, this thing, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is 10 years old. “Legal cases that changed Britain”—I did not notice any of the ones against you in there. It is a bit partial, is it not?

David Isaac: I do not believe it is partial. We are the guardian of equality and human rights in this country. We have important statutory powers. We are, as Rebecca has made clear, vulnerable in the sense that, while we try to do whatever we can in the way in which we treat our own staff, some people are going to be disgruntled. That does not undermine the really important work that we have done in the last 10 years to change the face of equalities and human rights in this country. I endorse what Rebecca has said. We are really proud of what has been achieved and we are working hard, as we move forward in the next 10 years, to drive real change. I am very focused on outcomes and we are now delivering improved outcomes.

 

To watch the evidence session in full please click here

The full transcript of the session can be found here