The report of the EHRC's major human rights inquiry, which was published in June 2009, included numerous recommendations aimed at the Commission itself. We agree with the report's broad conclusions. As several of our previous inquiries have also found, embedding a culture of human rights in public authorities in the UK would drive service improvements which would benefit ordinary people. The Commission has a major role to play in leading this process. Our concern is with whether the EHRC is doing enough to devise and disseminate a culture of respect for human rights in public authorities, the main aim our predecessors identified for the Commission in their 2003 report on the case for a UK human rights commission.
The EHRC published a short human rights strategy in November 2009, in part as a response to the report of its human rights inquiry. In our view, it is too vague. We recommend that a more detailed version be launched later in 2010, after public consultation. We also recommend that the next human rights strategy should be more clearly related to the strategic objectives set out in the EHRC's overall strategy.
Although the EHRC cannot possibly have been expected to transform the way in which public services are delivered within the first two or three years of its existence, the report of the EHRC's human rights inquiry shows that the Commission had not begun systematically to address this issue. The publication of a human rights strategy is evidence that the EHRC is seeking to approach its responsibilities for human rights matters on a more systematic basis than hitherto; but, in our view, the Commission is not yet fulfilling the human rights mandate set out in the Equality Act.
We were also concerned to hear allegations made by a number of former commissioners, who resigned in 2009, about the way in which the body was led by Trevor Phillips. These included suggestions, which are contested by continuing commissioners, that:
- the board of commissioners was not functioning as a corporate body;
- commissioners felt intimated if they held the Chair to account for his actions; and
- perceived conflicts of interest between Mr Phillips' involvement with a private consultancy firm and his position as Chair of the EHRC had not been adequately dealt with.
We also noted that the Commission's accounts for 2006-08 had been qualified by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
In our view, Mr Phillips' reappointment in 2009 should have been subject to open competition. The Minister for Women and Equality's decision to reappoint Mr Phillips without any parliamentary involvement could undermine the perceived independence of the Commission and put its accreditation as a national human rights institution at risk.
We welcome the fact that Mr Phillips has now relinquished his controlling share in the Equate consultancy but regret that it took him so long to act on the advice he was given.
We are concerned that the EHRC continues to operate without a chief executive. This is unacceptable, particularly as there would seem to be no prospect of an appointment being made until much later in 2010.
In our view, the Commission's credibility across the political spectrum would be enhanced if it included at least one commissioner with links to the Conservative Party.