Equality and Human Rights Commission - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. The launch of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in October 2007 was an important landmark in the development of the UK's human rights framework. Our predecessors laid the groundwork for the EHRC with an inquiry into the case for a human rights commission in March 2003. They said "a human rights commission, probing, questioning and encouraging public bodies, could have a real impact in driving forward the development of a culture of respect for human rights." [1] In scrutinising the legislation which established the Commission, the Committee said:[2]

    The appearance in precise legislative form of the intention to create the [EHRC] represents the most important milestone reached so far in establishing the institutional support which is needed to achieve wider implementation of the Human Rights Act and respect for human rights, particularly within public authorities. With its vision of the achievement of a fairer and more equal society, the Bill is the most important legislative measure for the advancement of human rights in this country since the Human Rights Act itself

2. The EHRC is a non-departmental public body, required to encourage and support the development of a society in which:

  • people's ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination;
  • there is respect for and protection of each individual's human rights;
  • there is respect for the dignity and worth of each individual;
  • each individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society; and
  • there is mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing of diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights.[3]

3. In relation to human rights, the EHRC must:

  • promote understanding of the importance of human rights;
  • encourage good practice in relation to human rights;
  • promote awareness, understanding and protection of human rights; and
  • encourage public authorities to comply with section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which makes it unlawful for public authorities to act in a way which is incompatible with European Convention rights.[4]

4. Bearing in mind that equality is itself a human right recognised in all of the major human rights treaties, we have taken a strong interest in a good deal of the EHRC's work, inviting the Commission to submit its views to our inquiries and other scrutiny work, and occasionally addressing recommendations to the Commission. When we heard oral evidence from Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the EHRC, in October 2008, we intended this to be the first in a series of annual opportunities to discuss significant human rights issues and the EHRC's work.

5. Regrettably, the EHRC's work during 2009 was overshadowed by disputes between a number of commissioners and Mr Phillips which attracted considerable media interest. In addition, the EHRC's annual accounts for 2006-08 were qualified by the Comptroller and Auditor General, raising questions about the EHRC's management and alleged conflicts of interest involving Mr Phillips. The resignation of the EHRC's chief executive, Nicola Brewer, on her appointment as UK High Commissioner in South Africa, added to the organisation's difficulties and there were suggestions that the working relationship between Dr Brewer and Mr Phillips had been problematic.[5]

6. Consequently, we decided to use our annual oral evidence session with the Chair of the EHRC to discuss the various problems of leadership and management which had emerged into public view during the year, and the extent to which the EHRC had fulfilled our and our predecessor's vision of what a human rights and equality commission should be. We were also able to discuss the EHRC's human rights strategy, which was published on 10 November, the day of our oral evidence with Mr Phillips and the three colleagues who accompanied him. Whilst we did not issue terms of reference, as it was originally intended just to hold oral evidence sessions, an announcement was issued of an "annual evidence session with the Chair of the EHRC to discuss the work of the Commission during the last year. The Committee will also hear from four former EHRC Commissioners". The four former EHRC commissioners gave evidence, principally to discuss why they had resigned, on 20 October 2009. On 28 October, the Committee requested "short written contributions about the work of the Commission" by 5 November and Mr Phillips gave evidence on 10 November. Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, who has ministerial responsibility for the EHRC, and Jonathan Rees, the Director-General of the Government Equalities Office, gave evidence on 15 December. We received written evidence from several former commissioners, Dr Brewer and a number of NGOs which have dealings with the EHRC. We are grateful for all of the information and evidence we received and we record our thanks to the EHRC which dealt quickly and thoroughly with our various requests for information and documents.

7. Our work covered two broad themes: the EHRC's record to date as a national human rights institution; and the governance and leadership of the EHRC under Mr Phillips' chairmanship. We comment on the EHRC's human rights work as a critical friend of the Commission, sharing its ambition to foster a human rights culture in the UK. Our views can be found in the next chapter. We have found it difficult to get to the bottom of all the disputes between the commissioners who resigned and Mr Phillips: in some cases, there would appear to be irreconcilable differences of view about relatively straightforward matters. Having heard both sides of the story, and given all concerned the opportunity to comment on the principal evidence we received, we offer our impressions of what has gone wrong in chapter 3.

1   Fourth Report, Session 2002-03, The Case for a Human Rights Commission, HL Paper 67-I, HC 489-I (hereafter Case for a Human Rights Commission) paragraph 239. Back

2   Sixteenth Report, Session 2004-05, Equality Bill, HL 98, HC 497 (hereafter Equality Bill) paragraph 5. Back

3   Section 3, Equality Act 2006. Back

4   Section 9, Equality Act 2006. Back

5   See paragraph 63. Back

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