On the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 10th birthday its Chair, David Isaac, sits down with PoliticsHome to discuss Brexit, budgets, and what the Commission hopes to achieve in the next decade.
There was anxiety in some quarters at the creation of an umbrella organisation for equality and human rights in the United Kingdom. The body, known as the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), brought together under one roof legacy organisations responsible for racial equality, disability rights, equal opportunities and more. Sceptics were concerned that each area would struggle to vie for attention.
The EHRC however recently celebrated its tenth birthday and, according to David Isaac, its chair, has proven the doubters wrong. “That anxiety probably was valid at the beginning, but now over the course of the last 10 years, the commission has grown more confident, more visible and it has really impacted upon millions of millions of people in a very positive way,” he says.
The EHRC was set up in October 2007 following the enactment of the Equality Bill 2006. It is Britain’s National Human Rights Institution and the Government’s independent advisory body on human rights and equality. The EHRC receives it’s funding from government. The commission exists to help make Britain fairer by safeguarding and enforcing the laws that protect people’s rights to fairness, dignity and respect.
Isaac is effusive about the contribution made by the EHRC in a relatively short space of time. He points to the commission’s work in relation to do not resuscitate orders without consent, access to justice, human rights for elderly people in care homes, the commission’s research department with reports into race and rights of disabled people in Britain, and the EHRC’s “exemplary” studies into how fair Britain is as a country.
Isaac joined the EHRC in April 2016. And it has been a tumultuous 18 months to chair a body responsible for equality and human rights, with concerning reports of Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, the recent sexual harassment scandal, equal pay and the uncertainty of Brexit.
“We did think probably 10 years ago that the trajectory was more straightforward even though there would be a lot to be done. I think the rise of populism, the forces that we’ve seen across the world which perhaps raises question marks over the current liberal orthodoxy has presented challenges,” he says.
“However, you describe the referendum decision in 2016, there are lots of people whose voices have not been heard or people who felt that their voices haven’t been heard. Some of those people are people we’re trying to work with or work for.
“So, it does… give you a more testing environment in which particularly human rights is perhaps not necessarily fully understood.”
He adds: “The challenge for the commission is to ensure that in relation to all of the protected characteristics and engaging with society, we’re not seen as the politically correct brigade.
“This is something that I’m very actively involved in. Just take human rights as an example. How do we remind people that human rights are for everybody? It’s not just about prisoners, it’s about the families of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster, it’s about people who contracted haemophilia who had a really difficult time getting justice, because the Human Rights Act didn’t exist at that time.”
Isaac wants to raise the profile of the EHRC and see the commission become a “more confident organisation”. “I think you’re beginning to see the signs of some of that change,” he says.
This confidence was demonstrated in October last year when Isaac called for greater powers to be given to the EHRC in order to carry out its work. These include the ability to issue fines in relation to businesses failing to meet their obligations under the gender pay gap regulations and requirements for disabled people.
“My overall position on our powers is that we do have some very good powers and we need to use them effectively, but I think we could be even more effective if for example we had the power to fine, we had the power to visit premises if you think accessibility issues,” he explains.
“Sometimes our powers are not necessarily as agile as I would like us to be, or they’re disproportionate to the sorts of issues that we’re talking about… 10 years on, we probably could operate with a lighter-touch regime in addition to the sorts of powers that we’ve got for more serious situations.”
Such changes would require primary legislation however and with parliament blocked up by Brexit the EHRC might have to bide its time, Isaac concedes. “One of the other things that we’ve been calling for is our ability to report to parliament rather than to government,” he says. “We would like to wrap that in as part of the demand for more powers.”
Isaac also argues the EHRC could “usefully get more funding” to “discharge” its mandate. “It’s two things: one, making sure we use the money that we’ve got to provide better value for money and to make us more effective, something I think we’re doing better now than previously. Secondly, that if we’re going to do our job well, we need to be properly resourced,” he says.
“There are expectations, particularly from the Women and Equalities select committee, that we become more muscular. I’m keen that we’re already more muscular. [Women and Equalities chair] Maria Miller is calling for us to be even stronger and to do that we need extra resources.”
In the meantime, the Commission is focussed on its current projects which include its human rights review of the Grenfell tragedy, guidance on tackling workplace sexual harassment, work to tackle race inequality and an inquiry into housing for disabled people. “The one that I feel really, really strongly about is disability. We’re trying to make these issues particularly in relation to alterations to allow disabled people to live independently integral to the way in which local authorities operate. We’re doing the central government bit and the local authority bit to try and drive change and to engrain these things into the way in which government at all levels deliver,” he says.
Of course, Brexit remains very high on the agenda for the commission. Though efforts to amend the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to ensure there would be “no diminution” of human rights post-Brexit were ultimately unsuccessful in the Commons, the EHRC has not given up the ghost on altering the legislation in the Lords. “I’m optimistic. The mood-music is very supportive,” says Isaac.
“One of our amendments is to introduce a freestanding right to equality into the withdrawal bill. That would give extra protections but it wouldn’t focus on the commission or our status.”
And it is Brexit, alongside building upon the commission’s successes, that will drive much of the EHRC’s work over the next decade. And, in particular, shaping what kind of country we want the UK to be outside of the EU.
“What sort of Britain is Brexit Britain going to be? Are we going to have a British bill of rights? Is that an enhancement of the Human Rights Act if this government continues to stay in power? Will that result in an enhancement of human rights or will there be a battle where human rights are perceived to have been diminished? And what does that look like and what is our role?
“In that case, I would say the importance of our international obligations becomes even more central. We are there to promote and protect and we should be fearless in the way in which we do that.”