It is the EHRC itself that is autocratic

It wasn’t Trevor Phillips who made the Equality and Human Rights Commission ‘dictatorial’ - by its very nature the EHRC is authoritarian.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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October 2007 was quite a month for UK-based fans of bureaucratic monoliths.

Where previously the British public had had to endure the strictures of a bewildering array of quangos, the much-anticipated formation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) saw the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) become one big super-quango. Not only that, it had also acquired some new super-quango powers in areas of sexual orientation, age, religion and belief, and, of course, human rights.

State-funded to the tune of £70million and employing 500 staff, the EHRC is a truly impressive monument to New Labour’s technocratic impulse. It is also, like New Labour itself, imploding. Over the past four months, six of the 18-man ruling body have ‘resigned’/chosen not to reapply for their contracts. In other words, in less than half a year, the EHRC has lost a third of its commissioners. The press and members of parliament are not impressed. The Tories are chatting about dismantling the EHRC altogether, while others are threatening to launch that parliamentary weapon of mass disappointment: the inquiry.

So, what is the problem? What has caused the disarray at the EHRC? The answer, it seems, is the person meant to be running it, Trevor Phillips OBE, chair of the EHRC. He is, by all accounts, giving a one-man lesson on how to lose friends and piss people off. Disability rights campaigner and former EHRC colleague Bert Massie was clearly awed by Phillips’ management style: ‘How do you manage to alienate that number of people? It’s quite a skill.’ Phillips’ alleged response to his colleagues-turned-critics at the EHRC is to have played the race card. Or as Ali G would say ‘Is it cos I is black?’. No, his critics have responded, it’s because you’re an autocrat.

It is Phillips’ autocratic leadership style that has reportedly been the cause of the problems. Statements are issued without consultation; contracts are agreed behind backs; and Phillips has seemed unperturbed by much of the controversy. As Guardian journalist Hugh Muir explains, ‘Phillips seems to have run the EHRC in a very New Labour, Blairite way – with a certainty of conviction and strength of purpose, but with no great feeling that he had to take his lieutenants with him’. Former EHRC commissioner Kay Rampton echoed Muir, saying that Phillips’ leadership style ‘is better suited to a political party than a human rights organisation’. His friend, former director of the BBC and fellow tyrant, Greg Dyke, stood up for Phillips: ‘He does try to get things done’, he said, before declaring, all-too-knowingly: ‘In some organisations, that doesn’t always make you very popular.’

So there you have it. An expensively state-backed organisation of 500 people is in meltdown because its boss is not only very bossy but also likes the sound of his own voice. Which doesn’t sound too different from the thousands of other egotistical bosses across the country. The problems at the EHRC sound like little more than a bitching-fest between different single-issue cliques.

However, while Philips may well be a nightmare to work with or work for, the problem is not Trevor Phillips; it is the EHRC itself. It is not the man that is autocratic, but the institution. Far from it being a case of Phillips behaving like Stalin in PC clothing, the EHRC – like the CRE, the DRC and the EOC before it – is, by its very nature, a high-handed institution, monitoring, watching and fiddling with interactions in the public sphere.

The EHRC has, according to its own website, ‘the responsibility to protect, enforce and promote equality across the seven “protected” grounds – age, disability, gender, race, religion and belief, sexual orientation and gender reassignment’. This means, to use its own euphemistic phrasing, ‘educating and enthusing the public’ about equality and human rights, and keeping an eye on the equal opportunities policy of organisations in the public and private sector. And with its ‘extensive legal powers and a dedicated directorate of expert lawyers who are specialists in equality law’, it will, wherever there are opportunities, ‘push the boundaries of the law’, and seek to ‘clarify’ and ‘set [legal] precedents’.

Empowered to enforce the notoriously slippery human rights legislation, this state watchdog stands over and above the public sphere, looking out for violations of any area of social etiquette, whether it be in the area of race, gender or disability. Moreover, it assumes the public to be a risk to itself, to be incapable of regulating its own interactions. The EHRC is, in essence, a highhanded testament to elite condescension. Little wonder that one of Phillips’ first acts as EHRC chair was to call for the Oxford Student Union to withdraw invitations to Holocaust denier David Irving and British National Party leader Nick Griffin, on the grounds, paradoxically, that allowing them to speak would degrade freedom of speech. This was an early sign of the deep censoriousness, built on an instinct to police what the public hears and thinks, which underpins the EHRC.

That the EHRC tends towards such a patronising view of the public should not be a surprise. It is an autocratic institution made up of the professionally autocratic, a job scheme for veterans of the quangocratic age. As the EHRC website explains: ‘Many of those who worked in the previous equalities commissions joined the new Commission, creating a body with an enormous wealth of experience and knowledge about race, sex and disability equality and discrimination.’ That is one way of spinning it. The fact, however, that Phillips’ former colleagues at the Commission for Racial Equality have not only been given inflated salaries in their new jobs, but have received those salaries without having to repay their large voluntary redundancy packages, suggests something less favourable – not so much employment in a good cause as ‘jobs for the boys’.

Worryingly, much of the commentary around the body’s failings is concerned not with the EHRC’s unelected, unaccountable, public role, but with the problems it is currently having in fulfilling that role. As the leader comment in the Independent put it, the EHRC is ‘an organisation ridden with conflict within and incapable of exercising its function without’. ‘There is an overwhelming need for an independent body with teeth to ensure people’s rights are protected’, urged Katie Ghose, the director of the British Institute of Human Rights: ‘We hope the EHRC can emerge from its current crisis and rise to this challenge.’

The prospect of the EHRC being ‘streamlined’, of it striking out with new purpose, may well save Phillips’ job. But this would not be an occasion for cheer; it would merely be the realisation of the EHRC’s autocratic promise. The problem with the EHRC is the multicultural ideology that infuses much of its outlook and work, which holds that differences should be celebrated, speech should be monitored, the public should be made more ‘aware’ (that is, re-educated in the right way of thinking), and that equality can be policed into existence. But it can’t. Meaningful equality springs from proper public engagement and open and free debate, not from the diktats of an inherently dictatorial quango.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons called for a bonfire of the quangos. Frank Furedi argues that in outsourcing their authority to international institutions, governments are bypassing the democratic process. Neil Davenport asked what gives the unelected suits at Ofcom the right to lecture broadcasters. And, elsewhere, he called Trevor Phillips a ghetto blaster. Or read more at spiked issue Politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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