Women in Workplace - Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Contents

6  Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

Role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

111.  The EHRC was established under the Equality Act 2006, and works within the statutory framework for protecting equality and human rights, for setting standards, and for holding public and private bodies to account in meeting them. The EHRC's own written evidence stated:

The Commission sees its evolving regulatory role as helping organisations achieve what they should, not trying to catch them out if they fall short. We view legal action as a last resort, when persuasion and advice have not proved effective.[173]

Section 3 of the Equality Act 2006 sets out the general duty of the EHRC:

The Commission shall exercise its functions under this Part with a view to encouraging and supporting the development of a society in which—

(a)  People's ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination;

(b)  There is respect for and protection of each individual's human rights;

(c)  There is respect for the dignity and worth of each individual;

(d)  Each individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society; and

(e)  There is mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights.[174]

Proposed changes to the EHRC

112.  The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill sought to remove Section 3 of the Equality Act 2006, thereby removing the general duty of the EHRC. After a House of Lords amendment opposing its removal was passed, the Government accepted that it should remain. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Jo Swinson, told the Commons:

Although it is accepted by all that the duty has a symbolic rather than a practical effect, it is clear that considerable importance is attached to this overarching statement. We maintain that the commission's monitoring and reporting should be carried out in respect of its core equality and human rights duties. The EHRC will continue to be required to monitor and report on changes in society, but, as has been agreed to in the Bill, that should relate to the areas that it is uniquely placed to influence and change: equality; diversity and human rights.[175]

113.  However, the Government is removing from the EHRC's remit various other responsibilities, including its helpline, funding for voluntary organisations and legal advice, and conciliation and mediation services. Mark Hammond, Chief Executive of the EHRC, told us that the helpline had been transferred to the Government Equalities Office, "which has let a contract to others to deliver a helpline service".[176] Fair Play South West argued that the EHRC had been under-resourced since its inception:

The EHRC, which is the enforcement agency established under the Equality Act 2006, was under-resourced and not well managed when it took over from the three previous enforcement agencies (for gender, race and disability equality) and has since been systematically undermined by resource cuts and too much Government interference in its activities.[177]

114.  The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) also expressed concern over the EHRC's future standing:

The work of the EHRC is now under threat. The Government plans to slash its budget by 68% (compared to when it was set up in 2007). It is likely to: lose more than half its workforce; reduce its legal enforcement ability; close its Helpline to the public, business, and the public sector; lose its regional offices; end its grants to charities or projects disability groups and community organisations that are often the first port of call for victims of discrimination and harassment.[178]

Sarah Veale, from the TUC, spoke in stark terms about the consequences of the budget cut on the EHRC:

[The EHRC] have had a very significant budget cut. They have also been put on zero budget measures for next year, which is pretty drastic. [...] The fear, though, is that the cut is so huge that the whole organisation has been knocked sideways.[179]


115.  The EHRC is regarded as providing high quality advice, but we heard evidence that it is less good at ensuring that it reaches the appropriate people. For example, the EHRC has published guidance for small and medium businesses to explain: legal definitions of discrimination and unlawful behaviour in the Equality Act; the role as an employer under the Equality Act; and the role as a service provider under the Equality Act.[180] However, when we heard from representatives of small and medium-sized businesses, our witnesses—founders and directors of their companies—did not use the EHRC's resources, and one had not even heard of the EHRC.[181] When questioned about this, Mark Hammond, Chief Executive of the EHRC, replied:

We are very conscious that we need hugely to improve and enhance the relationships we have with the CBI, the FSB and the chambers—all those organisations. [...] We are not precious about how the information, advice, and support get to SMEs, particularly. If it comes through us, that is great, and we can provide material and assistance to the employee organisations that they look to. [...] The impact for us is the same: getting that advice and support out to SMEs, sole traders and all those who might need it.[182]

Karen Jochelson, from the EHRC, agreed that the crucial point is that the EHRC's message is delivered:

We are a small organisation, and there is a very, very big world out there. For us, it is about how you get your message across most effectively.[183]

116.  The EHRC carries out substantive inquiries into different sectors. Karen Jochelson told us about the EHRC's inquiry into the meat and poultry industry. The Report made recommendations that included: processing firms and agencies to use fair and transparent recruitment practices and to provide workers with a safe working environment; supermarkets to improve their support to and auditing of suppliers; and the Government to provide sufficient resources to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) to deliver its task of safeguarding the welfare and interests of workers.[184] Karen Jochelson explained the subsequent work that EHRC undertook with the relevant bodies, which brought the EHRC's work to the forefront of those in the industry:

We set up a task force after our inquiry report was delivered, which drew together supermarkets, the labour providers, processors in meat and poultry, and various trade associations, and the trade unions who worked in the industry. They agreed that some guidance arising from the problems that we had identified would be very helpful. We published that guidance two months ago, and we calculate we probably reached 80% of the processing firms and about 2,000 labour providers. The way we were able to do this is: our guidance now sits on the supermarkets' supplier intranet, which is not something we would have access to except through the supermarkets. The British Meat Processors Association, the British Poultry Council and the Association of Labour Providers all have our guidance on their website, and they have advertised it through their own web and newsletters. To me, it is the fact that our guidance was supported in the first place by that industry. It has helped us to figure out the best way of disseminating it, and it has been disseminated with its support, which is what is going to make it most effective, but if you are not in that industry, the chances are that you are not going to have read it.[185]

117.  We welcome the fact that the Government reconsidered its intention to repeal the Equality and Human Rights Commission's general duty, as set out in Section 3 of the Equality Act 2006. However, we remain concerned at other Government measures that are weakening the EHRC's ability to carry out its general duty. In this Report, we have recommended that the EHRC should be providing: enhanced information and advice covering career strategies; equal pay audit and equal pay best practice advice; the monitoring and assessment of the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED); data transparency advice; and support to SMEs. Funding is tight, but if the EHRC is to carry out all of these activities effectively, it needs to be better resourced. We welcome initiatives such as the EHRC's recent work with the meat and poultry industry, and recommend that that EHRC actively seek funding from other private business sectors for similar funding.

173   Ev 180 Back

174   Equality Act 2006, part 1, section 3 Back

175   HC Deb, 23 April 2013, col 790 Back

176   Q 395 Back

177   Ev w34 Back

178   Ev w81 Back

179   Q 144 Back

180   http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/here-for-business/guidance-for-small-and-medium-size-businesses/ Back

181   Q 366 Back

182   Q 394 Back

183   Q 394 Back

184   http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/legal-and-policy/inquiries-and-assessments/inquiry-into-the-meat-and-poultry-processing-sectors/the-inquiry-report/


185   Q 394 Back

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Prepared 20 June 2013