The Guardian reported on Tuesday that Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone is to reform the Equality and Human Rights Commission, cutting its budget and removing some of its responsibilities, most notably its obligation to assess how Government policies would affect the poorest.
Now, if ever there was a quango in need of reform, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission is that body. Dysfunctional seems to be the best word to describe the EHRC. Wasteful would be another. For three years running, the National Audit Office qualified its accounts. Last year was the first year since its formation in 2007 when it managed to achieve an unqualified audit opinion. However the NAO expressed concern about what would happen once the interim staff, who had turned the lack of financial control around, left.
The EHRC exhibited an astonishing lack of financial control and wrote off £874,000 of losses without proper approval. They could not provide evidence that grants it had given were in order and simply did not have sufficient financial control measures in place. In 2007, it re-engaged staff it had made redundant again without proper authority and without making them repay their severance pay at a total cost of almost £1 million. Have a read of the full audit reports to see the extent of the incompetence.
It strikes me that reforming this organisation is the responsible thing to do. The Guardian might like to paint it as a Tory inspired ideological bashing, but Lynne Featherstone has a long record of championing equalities issues and extensive working knowledge of the EHRC's history. Her recommendations therefore have a huge amount of credibility and authority behind them. The Tories, in contrast, would have been most likely to have abolished it completely. They don't really get equalities or human rights as has been all too clear.
Lynne Featherstone, on the other hand, as a Liberal Democrat, instinctively understands the importance of having a watchdog to make sure that we adhere to equalities legislation. The phrase she often uses about what she wants that body to be is "valued and respected national institution." The leviathan of waste and pettiness bequeathed by Labour was clearly not fit for purpose and she's had to trim it down and ensure it focuses on what it was intended to do.
As regards the repeal of the socio economic duty, we've known about this since 2010. It seems very out of place in this day and age to consider social class as a part of every Government policy. It's the sort of typically tokenistic and bureaucratic measure that Labour loved but actually achieved very little. Lynne spoke about this in her speech to our Autumn conference in 2010:
What Labour did was turn equalities into a burden. It became a byword for bureaucracy and red-tape. Less about liberation and more about frustration. And if ticking boxes and filling out forms led to equality, then Britain would be a utopia of fairness and optimism. But it doesn’t. And it isn’t. What Britain needs is a seismic cultural shift in the way people view and relate to each other. Let’s be honest – people are still not free from the barriers of their place of birth, their sexuality, the colour of their skin. But this will not be changed with lazy, short term thinking or shallow, headline-grabbing laws.
Knowing Lynne and her track record on equality issues, I am in no doubt that the changes she's making to the EHRC will make it a better organisation, better suited to helping the cause of equality. As Lynne said herself the other day:
Since its creation the Equality and Human Rights Commission has struggled to deliver across its remit and has not demonstrated good value for money.
‘Our reforms will provide it with a stronger focus and make it more accountable, helping it become the valued and respected national institution it was always intended to be.