07:22, December 18 86 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-18 07:22:04
UK ministers blocking appointments to rights watchdog, say lawyers

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is running short of board members and struggling to fulfil its duties because, lawyers allege, ministers are repeatedly vetoing appointments on political grounds.

Several experienced candidates supported by the state-funded independent body are understood to have been blocked in recent months after, it has been claimed, intervention by Downing Street or the Cabinet Office.

The EHRC is the government’s advisory body on human rights and equality issues. Confirmation is contained in published minutes of its board meetings which warn that “current vacancies on the board … [have] presented immediate quorum issues”.

Some former board members allege the difficulties date to the arrival of Theresa May as prime minister, at which point stricter selection criteria are said to have been imposed. The government’s distraction over Brexit may also have delayed appointments.

The shortage has coincided with the introduction of a new governance code on public appointments, which is said to have made it easier for ministers to pick their political allies.

Sarah Veale, a former head of equality and employment rights at the Trades Union Congress, sat on the board for several years. The EHRC tried to renew her appointment but she was notified of her dismissal in a letter from the education secretary, Justine Greening, this year.

Veale, who has been awarded the CBE and previously sat on the boards of the Health and Safety Executive and Acas, the mediation service, said: “It was really quite extraordinary. I have been told [the decision not to reappoint] was because a political adviser in No 10 had noticed a tweet I made disapproving of some government policy.

“They are obviously determined to iron out any kind of dissent. The chair of the EHRC [David Isaac] had specifically asked to reappoint me. I fear that the board may be struggling to meet its quorum on some key committees such as the risk and audit committee. They have had to put one person on three different subgroups.

“There have been concerns about too much political interference. Ministers are meddling in areas in which they have no legal, let alone moral right to interfere. The board may lose out on appointing good people in the future.”

At full strength the board of the EHRC is supposed to have 10-15 commissioners but it is currently down to eight participating members. Appointments to the EHRC are formally approved by the Department for Education, which is responsible for coordinating equality policy across the government. However, they are usually referred to Downing Street for consent.

Published minutes from a meeting of the board in July noted: “Board members discussed strategic risk five (arrangements for oversight of delivery of strategic aims) and felt the amber rating was appropriate given the current vacancies on the board.

“This presented immediate quorum issues for the human resources and remuneration committee (HRRC) and audit and risk assurance committee (ARAC) and longer-term risks in terms of the board’s breadth of expertise, and how the commission’s independence of government was perceived.”

In May, the board minutes recorded “that the chair may need to call for volunteers to sit of ARAC, HRRC and the treaty monitoring CWGs if board vacancies were not filled.”

The Guardian understands that several highly experienced lawyers were supported as candidates by the EHRC chair but have not been approved, despite their extensive experience.

The only recent appointment was of the Conservative peer Kevin Shinkwin. He is in dispute with the government and the EHRC because he has not been appointed as a disability commissioner. It is understood he is not participating in the EHRC governance.

A spokesperson for the EHRC said questions about appointments were a matter for the government. The EHRC recently asked to be given greater powers, including the right to make appointments to its board.

A government spokesperson said: “All public appointments adhere to the governance code on public appointments.”