The crisis at the heart of Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission
Human rights - whether it is gay rights, racial discrimination, gender equality, equal pay or disability discrimination - is at the heart of many of the big issues facing modern Britain today.
It is therefore a tragedy that the organisation responsible for monitoring such issues is now a fractured body with management at loggerheads with staff and the main focus of a destructive policy of government cuts by people who appear to believe there is no such thing as society and these rights are not necessarily worth defending.
Today this body came within a hair's breadth of facing strike action by a frustrated and alienated staff and the action was only averted by talks at Acas. Contrary to the popular image civil servants do not take strike action lightly - it is only a measure of last resort. So when two unions, the Public and Commercial Services Union and Unite, decided to take such action, things have reached crisis point.
Its crisis is not surprising when a body like this has suffered cut after cut until it is a shadow of its former self and people - including the United Nations - are questioning whether it can have any meaningful role in defending people's rights.
The gaping divide can be seen between the perceptions of management and staff over what is happening there at the moment - I did an article on the forthcoming strike for Tribune last Friday.(unfortunately not on line at the moment) and one on the great divide between management and worker's salaries for Sunday Mirror earlier which is the subject of a dispute by the Commission ( also not on line at the moment).
The present cuts whereby nineteen of the first 26 posts due to be axed are held by staff in the three lowest paid grades, means the government body responsible for protecting vulnerable workers is itself disproportionately targeting older, ethnic minority and disabled staff. Another 50 are expected to follow. the fear is that the Commisison wants to cuts is staff from over 600 in 2010 to just 150 next year.
The union and staff reaction to this is shown by a quote from Mark Serwotka, the genetal secretary of PCS, “The commission is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on consultants while getting rid of low paid staff who provide daily support to victims of discrimination.
“It is sickening that as division and hate are being fostered in our communities in the wake of the Brexit vote, this Tory government is cutting the staff whose job it is to combat this.”
The management view is the opposite.
A Commission spokesperson said:“It is disappointing that the union have decided to take this action. We have made every effort to work constructively with them on our proposals as we implement our new way of working. We have listened to them throughout the process and acted on a number of their suggestions.
“Like every public sector organisation we have had cuts to our budget. We need to make savings and we need to change how we work to deliver our strategic plan. We are confident that any action will not affect the important work we do in protecting and improving people’s rights.”
“We have a very diverse workforce when compared to the wider public and private sectors. The operating model was consulted on exhaustively with all staff, transparently and with a focus on the most effective structure for the Commission rather than the individuals in the posts affected. In addition to this, there will be a stronger focus on new training and mentoring schemes to support more minority ethnic and disabled staff into leadership positions."
Given human rights is a central issue in Britain I have decided to forensically examine what is exactly going on at the EHRC. Can the top management justify its large salaries at the taxpayers' expense? Is running the EHRC just a career option for an elite group of officials and a millionaire lawyer ? What issues are the EHRC really taking up and are they effective in doing so? Who are the people they want to sack from their organisation? Is the EHRC really value for money? Do they practice what they preach to private industry and the public services?
Fortunately I have seen a large volume of material from a wide variety of sources - far too much to put in one blog or article - that allows me to look at such issues. Over the next few weeks I intend to examine this and put it to the EHRC and other scrutiny bodies, like Parliament's Women and Equalities Committee, which is preparing to examine whether the EHRC is doing a proper job.