26 November 2019

Corbyn’s cynical plan to tame the equalities watchdog


With news of the Chief Rabbi’s indictment of Labour, it’s worth remembering that the party is under investigation for institutional anti-Semitism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – the British legal regulator and enforcer of the Equality Act and guardian of the Human Rights Acts. I know the organisation well, having joined as Chief Operating Officer in 2012 – a job described to me at the time as the worst in the public sector.

The Commission was an unlovely shotgun marriage of three former regulators on race equality, disability rights and equal opportunities. Three strident regulators and their legacy staff with three different cultures and sets of priorities were shoehorned into a tower block overlooking the Thames by the Gherkin. It was never going to be easy, even with all other things being equal.

They weren’t. The EHRC was in a parlous situation. The Conservative bit of the coalition regarded it with deep scepticism and made barely disguised plans to kill it by a thousand funding cuts. This was in part because Government did not believe that it was an efficient organisation that gave effective or useful advice in the areas it was supposed to be regulating. Moreover, the internal politics of the organisation was overwhelmed by obsessional leftist introspection and almost permanent conflict between the PCS – the union that represented most staff – and the management.

Despite all its failings, the EHRCs Commissioners – the public appointees accountable for overseeing its operation – are and remain resolutely independent. These were people from increasingly diverse political, professional, intellectual backgrounds who made the bold decision to formally authorise enforcement action against Labour in August 2019. They examined the facts and announced a statutory investigation of repeated and widespread allegations of antisemitism in Labour. At any other time this would have been a devastating indictment of a national political institution requiring public remorse and the rolling of heads. To have come to this – the self-styled anti-racist party that invented the very organisation now investigating it for repeated allegations of racial prejudice.

But we aren’t in normal times and Corbyn is far from a normal political leader. Where shame and humility ought to have been the response, there was only denial, sullen defensiveness, obfuscation and the increasingly desperate ‘smear’ response. The only other party to be investigated for racism in the entire history of the EHRC was the fascist BNP. Have they no shame at all? At times it looks like the triumvirate who have captured Labour’s rotting soul – Milne, Murray and McDonnell – have simply priced this appalling prejudice into the electoral calculus. There simply aren’t enough Jews to matter. Their boss – or more accurately their sock puppet – the most unfortunate anti-racist in the history of discrimination, can continue to accidentally cosy up to every violent extremist on the planet because Cable Street. Pathetic.

So the news today, as part of Labour’s manifesto on Race and Faith, that somehow what the EHRC needs is ‘real independence’ should by greeted with the cynicism it deserves. What they mean is that a legal regulator with the temerity to go after them for anti-Jewish hatred must be helped to death if they get into power. You can imagine what a reformed EHRC under a Corbyn administration would look like: a deeply politicised operation presided over by a politburo of bien pensants, ‘guided’ to stick to all the permissible vices, including, I am sure, relentless obsessing and regulation over identity issues and any other performative grievances that could safely supplant and neuter the regulator’s mission.

The EHRC can be a force for good and it certainly started to demonstrate this by the time I left in 2015. I was hugely proud to lead a major inquiry into preventable deaths in custody. The commission at its best stands up for the rights of people with little power or voice. In areas such as gender segregation at Universities, increased participation of BAME people in sport, pregnancy and maternity discrimination and free expression, the Commission I worked for became forthright and brave and regained respect. This work has continued and flourished under the superb leadership of my former colleague, Chief Executive Rebecca Hilsenrath.

The one thing that the EHRC does not need is an incoming Labour government determined to settle old scores – whatever the result of its investigation. When I was at the EHRC we had to work very hard (including lobbying at the UN in Geneva) to preserve it as an ‘A’ status national human rights institution. We absolutely should retain the EHRC – in my view as the watchdog for a new written constitution. What we can’t allow is the sort of statist revenge emasculation that would surely follow Jeremy Corbyn’s instalment in Downing Street. Our country’s vulnerable minorities deserve better.

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Ian Acheson is a former Chief Operating Officer of the Equality and Human Rights Commission