Equality and Human Rights Commission - Public Accounts Committee Contents

2. Memorandum from Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)


  1.  The Public and Commercial Services union is the largest trade union in the civil service with 300,000 members working in government departments, non departmental public bodies and related areas.

  2.  PCS has 360 members in the Equality and Human Rights Commission, comprising over 85% of permanent staff below director level.

  3.  We had offered to discuss this briefing with the Interim Director General before his appearance before the PAC but unfortunately the offer was declined.

  4.  Our members include policy officers, lawyers, caseworkers, advisers, information officers, administrators, regional officers, ICT and communications staff. They are all highly committed to using their expertise and experience to ensure that the Commission achieves the goals with which it has been tasked as a robust, authoritative body that can deliver its remit.


  5.  PCS believe that the EHRC should be above reproach as a government funded body (we have attached the Nolan Principles as an Appendix to this briefing). The budget cut, and recent revelations including the NAO report,[1] regarding the Commission's financial and operational failings could have a detrimental impact on EHRC's unique statutory role, service delivery, capacity building and its essential grants programme for voluntary bodies.

  6.  PCS questions how the budget cuts will impact on how the commission plans to maintain ongoing essential work programmes, for example the flagship Codes of Practice & Guidance project and what impact it will have on law enforcement or the grants programme.

  7.  We have grave concerns over the EHRC's inefficient use of public money. For example we do not believe that the commission could demonstrate value for money on their information and communication projects. We are also concerned that there has been an over reliance on using high profile QCs rather than making better use of in-house expertise.


  8.  Another area where EHRC has used its finances ineffectively has been on its expenditure on consultants. PCS understands from written parliamentary answers that it is the high number of temporary staff, mostly consultants, which has led to the staff numbers exceeding the agreed complement of 525. The number of permanent staff remains at approximately 450.

  9.  Written answers on 19 October 2009 reveal that the cost of interim staff in 2008-2009 was £6.2 million, all paid from the overall staffing budget. Meanwhile, the internal pool of talent with years of experience advising external organisations on best practice has been wasted. PCS believe that this short sighted approach has damaged staff morale and offers poor value for taxpayers' money.

  10.  We understand that apart from a small number of agency administrative staff, the majority of interim staff are engaged as consultants paid between £450 and £1,000 a day. A recent freedom of information request revealed that one interim director alone was paid £231,750 in ten months. Compare this with the starting salary of £15,000 for a helpline operator.

  11.  We understand that the EHRC is now reducing the number of consultants, but that gives rise to how the Commission will maintain continuity of delivery and transfer of knowledge when handing over to in-house staff who to date have been largely excluded from this work.


  12.  Both unions and staff have been informed that for reasons including a breach of the 2008 and 2009 pay remits and exceeding its authorised headcount, the Commission may not be able to award any pay increases this year. This could not only impact on cost of living rises, but also any incremental progression or entitlement to back pay for those staff previously appointed at the wrong grade.

  13.  The impact on the morale of hardworking staff will be demoralising because they are being penalised for actions not of their making. Over a quarter of EHRC staff earn less than £25,000 per year, and over half earn less than £33,000 per year. According to a written parliamentary answer on 19 October, over a quarter of EHRC staff have received no pay rise or incremental progression since the Commission opened in 2007, rising to 32% of the lowest paid administrative staff (earning between £15,000 and £18,000 per year) who have received no pay increase at all for over two years.


  14.  The helpline is the public face of the EHRC and therefore a key measure of its credibility. Staffing levels at the helpline and knowledge centre were recently cut from 115 posts to 65, despite a high profile TUC supported campaign. The cuts have included the closure of the helpline team in Manchester.

  15.  PCS believe that this decision was based on a false economy in terms of service delivery. We are concerned that stakeholders and service users were not consulted, and two years since it opened for business, the Commission is still delaying the public launch to promote and advertise the helpline service.

  16.  We have major concerns over the impact on public services that the helpline cuts will have:

    — The helpline provides an essential advice service on human rights and all six equality strands to the public, and to organisations such as large employers, small businesses, public and private sector bodies, schools, colleges, universities, service providers, solicitors, students and the media. The queries range from older people denied insurance, abuse in care homes, forced retirement, disabled people unable to access work or services, and parents or carers denied flexible working to remain in employment rather than rely on state benefits.

    — Calls are increasing to a large extent because of the impact of the recession —a point recognised by ministers who have recently emphasised the need for individuals and employers to be more aware of their legal rights and duties when making redundancies.

    — Since job cuts have been introduced, the helpline has been increasingly run as a regimented call centre operation. Callers are waiting in queues of up to an hour, and if they request a call back are allowed limited scope to specify a time. If the helpline adviser does not reach the caller at the first attempt, they are under instruction not to leave a message or call again.

    — The outcome of such an inadequate system is that more members of the public are likely to go to a high street solicitor who immediately lodges an employment tribunal claim on a no-win no-fee basis, increasing the burden on employers who will face being tied up defending more ET claims and their associated costs. In contrast, an experienced helpline adviser can often suggest ways for the caller to resolve the situation without recourse to legal action and save on expenditure.

  17.  The EHRC has recently awarded £4.2 million in grants to voluntary sector bodies offering legal advice on equality and human rights issues. PCS supports this important funding for voluntary organisations, but that should not be a reason to cut the in-house advice service. Unlike external advice providers, the helpline is a cost effective way to feed emerging sectoral issues, strategic legal concerns or knowledge gaps requiring employer capacity building into the EHRC's legal and policy development.

  18.  As well as hampering service delivery PCS believe that the helpline staff cuts are also a waste of taxpayers' money. £450,000 was spent on the recruitment and training of helpline staff only two years ago. We also estimate that over £500,000 has been spent on consultants to take forward the helpline restructuring. We believe this money would have been better spent on promoting this service to the public.

  19.  PCS strongly believe that the EHRC should reverse its decision and prioritise a service which will benefit some of the most vulnerable people in society as well as employers.


  20.  Low morale is leading to an increased number of staff leaving the EHRC. This is resulting in a loss of expertise. These are staff who chose to join the commission two years ago, eager to play their part in developing a new equality agenda to benefit all UK citizens. PCS are concerned that the high number of costly consultants, staff departures and low morale will adversely affect output, and create a negative financial impact.

30 October 2009





  Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.


  Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might influence them in the performance of their official duties.


  In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.


  Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.


  Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.


  Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.


  Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

  These principles apply to all aspects of public life. The (Nolan) Committee has set them out here for the benefit of all who serve the public in any way.

1   National Audit Office-Report of the Comptroller and Audit General to the House of Commons, 18 June 2008 Back

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