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EHRC Refuses Britain a Fair Hearing

Equality and Human Rights Commission should be abolished

The Equality and Human Rights Commission contributes very little to meaningful equality in Britain today and should be abolished, according to a new Civitas report. Added to the Government’s much trumpeted ‘bonfire of the quangos’, the EHRC would save the Treasury tens of millions of pounds at no obvious cost to the general public.

Small Corroding Words, by Jon Gower Davies, is a systematic critique of the philosophy, research and practice of the EHRC. It reveals serious flaws in the EHRC’s ‘triennial review’,How Fair Is Britain?, that was used to demonstrate unfairness in Britain. What the research actually shows are the statistical differences between some groups. This line of thinking entails, for example, taking the fact that men are more likely to die in work-related accidents than women as a sign of unfairness. (pp. 8-9) The EHRC inaccurately blames Britain for differences of this kind.

Davies demonstrates how impractical the EHRC’s goal of equality is, wishing that life outcomes be entirely divorced from health limitations, cultural practices and lifestyles. Examining the philosophy of Trevor Phillips, chair of the EHRC, Davies argues:

[Trevor] Phillips conceives of humans as existing independently of their birth, their race, their gender, their age, their religion, their belief or their physical competence – his ‘list’, above: and on such human beings, so conceived, he is able to confer Rights no matter where they live or how or when they were created or what they have done or do. (p. 99)

Assuming the worst

The EHRC review details a vast range of statistical differences between social groups in Britain. However, it makes little attempt to establish what, if anything, is responsible for these differences. Instead, when the differences appear to disadvantage some groups, it is assumed to be the result of Britain’s unfairness. Davies reveals the myopia of this position that has to assume away environmental differences between, for example, countries of origin, variations over which British policy has no control.

For example, the EHRC review draws attention to the comparatively small differences in life expectancy between all British-born women (80.5) and women of Pakistani origin (77.3), but fails to draw attention to the much larger difference in outcomes between British women of Pakistani origin and women living in Pakistan (67.5). (p. 18)

This indicates not only that individuals of Pakistani origin appear to benefit from residence in the UK, but that much of the difference in life expectancy could be explained by environmental and social challenges in other countries. Not ‘unfairness’ in Britain:

The Report makes no attempt to try to compare the SMRs [Standardised Mortality Ratio]of people born in Pakistan, but dying here, with Pakistanis both born here and dying here. The masking or denial of what might be an ‘imported’ problem is precisely what the EHRC’s title ‘How Fair is Britain?’ is designed to effect. (pp. 19-20)

The EHRC also fails to acknowledge the full impact of cultural practices on life outcomes that will inevitably lead to statistical differences between ethnic groups. For example, infant mortality rates for Pakistanis are affected by a somewhat higher prevalence of inter-cousin marriage, which make congenital birth defects more probable (p. 19). This is an issue over which British policy has little direct control. Yet Britain is still regarded as being responsible for the outcomes.

Policy double binds

In some cases, this way of interpreting statistics can point in contradictory policy directions. For example, black people are cited as both more likely to be imprisoned than white people and more likely to be homicide victims in How Fair Is Britain. This can be partially explained by the fact that it is frequently black individuals who are the victims of black offenders (including homicides). According to the EHRC’s logic, the Government would be perpetuating unfairness both by imprisoning more black offenders (discrimination in the justice system) and by refusing to do so (resulting in less physical security for the black community).

Any action, on this account, could be condemned as unfair. This narrow approach to social policy is neither a reasonable approach with which to judge British society, nor a useful way of developing policies to improve outcomes for minority communities.

You know when you’ve been quangoed

Besides the EHRC’s illogical approach to statistics, there are serious concerns about its value for money. Davies outlines how the EHRC has been dogged by problematic accounting practices since its inception. The National Audit Office condemned the decision to make three senior employees redundant at a cost of over £500,000 before re-hiring them on a consultancy basis:

In 2009 the National Audit Office felt obliged to report to the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts on what appeared to be irregular accounting practices at the newly-created EHRC. (p. 63)

More recently, the EHRC has been accused of wasting £2 million, including unauthorised pay rises and £870,000 on an inoperable website.

Oh Commissioner, you are spoiling us!

For all its official concerns about relative inequality, the EHRC itself is a hierarchical organisation with benefits skewed towards its top layer, including its commissioners, who are highly remunerated for their work:

The Commissioners are paid for approved duties at the rate of £500 per day, with a maximum number of days permitted ranging from 3.5 days per week for [Trevor] Phillips as Chair, down to 20-30 days per year for the other Commissioners. (p. 62)

On top of these per diem payments, the quango’s expenses arrangements are extensive:

Reimbursement is available for travelling expenses, subsistence and hotels… There is an allowance of 40p a mile for the first 10,000 miles of car use, of 20p a mile for pedal bicycle use; and a variety of accommodation expenses, including one of £25 if staying overnight with a friend… The Chair, [Trevor] Phillips, has a car and driver, which is available also for the Deputy Chair and senior staff. (pp. 62-63)

Ultimately, abolishing the EHRC itself would not just be a cost-saving exercise. It may well present an opportunity to channel resources into addressing the most pertinent issues holding back equality and fairness.

Contact details:

Civitas 020 7799 6677

Notes for Editors

i. Jon Gower Davies is former Head of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Newcastle. For 20 years he was a Labour Councillor on Newcastle City Council.

ii. Small Corroding Words: the slighting of Great Britain by the EHRC is available from the Civitas shop (RRP: £7.00) and on Amazon Kindle. It is also available by calling 020 7799 6677.

iii. Civitas is an independent social policy think tank. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding.


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