EHRC: not fit for purpose

By Linda Burnip

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was established to be the National Equality Body and National Human Rights Institution for Great Britain. However the EHRC is not fit for purpose and is a feeble body whose primary mission seems only to be to avoid rocking the boat.

This view is further strengthened by the secret plans the EHRC has to scrap its Disability Advisory Committee something which disabled people and our organisations have never been consulted about.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) is submitting written evidence to the Universal Periodic Review of the UK’s performance on human rights. Our submission lays bare the decimation of our human rights infrastructure and the UK Government’s contempt for rights and equality. We reject the Government’s proposed changes to the Human Rights Act 1998 and to the judicial review process, and legislation to curtail the right to protest.

Additionally we have supported calls from Stonewall and other LGBTQ+ organisations for the EHRC to lose its ‘A’ status designation as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI). We provided a statement to be included in the Stonewall dossier to GANHRI (the global governing body for NHRIs) – in support of trans and non-binary communities. We have also sent a copy of our statement to the Secretary-General of the European Network of NHRIs.

We are clear that the EHRC’s profound failure as a defender of rights stems from egregious political interference, and deliberate under-funding, alongside an absolute lack of effective mechanisms to involve and prioritise the needs of the communities that it was established to support, particularly Deaf and Disabled People and our organisations.

This failure of our NHRI comes at a time when Covid-19, and the response to it, has further exposed and exacerbated long-standing inequalities – and while the UK Government is actively undermining human rights, access to justice, and living standards.

We urge the UK Parliament, with the support of MPs and Peers who value our human rights and equality infrastructure, to rectify the founding statute of the EHRC in the Equality Act 2006. A new EHRC must have:

  • guarantees of independence and freedom from political interference;
  • no political appointees, and an independent appointments process that ensures the board reflects and represents the communities it needs to serve;
  • accountability and direct communication between it and UK Parliaments;
  • guarantees of adequate funding;
  • additional powers and duties to make the EHRC more effective;
  • proper mechanisms for the EHRC to involve marginalised communities and enable them to hold it to account.

For over 11 years DPAC and other Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations (DDPOs) have asked EHRC to investigate serious issues of disability discrimination, only to be met with a wholly inadequate response and failure to act by the EHRC.

The EHRC has “de-prioritised” any inquiry into the potential link between UK Government welfare policies and numerous deaths of benefits claimants despite being provided with ample evidence of cases where disabled benefit claimants lost their lives due to welfare reforms.

 They further failed to act regarding the imposition of Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders for almost 1/3 of people hospitalised in the UK during the first Covid lockdown. DNRs were disproportionately applied to disabled people, particularly people with learning impairments.

The ramifications of this included death rates of people with learning disabilities anywhere between six and 30 times the rate of non-disabled people depending on age and month.

To date approximately 120,000 disabled people in the UK have died from Covid without anyone being held to account.

 The EHRC’s continuing failure to act reflects an organisation that has fundamentally de-prioritised and ignored key disability issues. That is borne out by these decisions and further evidenced by the downgrading of the role of Disability Commissioner and disbanding of the Disability Advisory Committee. Moreover, the EHRC has no robust mechanism for involving user-led Deaf and Disabled People’s organisations to inform its approach.

This hasn’t happened in a vacuum.

The EHRC is being co-opted by the UK Government at the same time as the Government is introducing some of the most authoritarian anti-protest legislation we have ever seen. The UK Government is additionally consulting on proposals to chip away at the universality and indivisibility of rights contained in the Human Rights Act 1998, and to reduce access to those rights through the courts. And it is legislating to weaken the process of judicial review and access to justice. This is the time we need a strong guardian of civil liberties and our human rights infrastructure, not a weak and compliant one.

The EHRC’s current leadership and policy direction represents a serious threat to the rights not just of disabled people, but of all communities targeted by this Government. We have seen this in the EHRC’s backhanded treatment of complaints by the Muslim Council of Britain concerning Islamophobia within the Conservative Party, and in its lack of support for the rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

We have seen it in the EHRC framing anti-racism as ‘political’ and therefore outside its remit. Its leadership consequently gaslit staff of colour who proposed an equity and rights-based approach to an inquiry on race and the pandemic – and refused to acknowledge institutional and structural racism.

We see it in the EHRC’s current treatment of trans and non-binary people.

DPAC stands in solidarity with trans and non-binary people; and we recognise and support the many Deaf and Disabled people who are also trans and non-binary. There is so much common ground in the fights for disability liberation and trans liberation: we stand for bodily autonomy, against unnecessary medicalisation, and against hate, stigma and discrimination.

The EHRC has undermined Scotland’s proposals for reform of our intrusive and medicalised gender recognition process, and resisted a ban on trans conversion therapy. The equality body also backed the designation of transphobic ‘gender-critical’ views as a protected aspect of Religion or Belief under the Equality Act 2010. It has failed to publish guidance for schools to support trans children and young people. This shift among the EHRC leadership to deny the rights of trans people echoes UK Government attitudes towards the rights of trans and non-binary communities.

Collectively these actions lead us to believe the EHRC no longer has credibility in its role to uphold human rights and equality or to act independently. It has betrayed the communities that need it most. It does not have the confidence of Deaf and Disabled people.

The EHRC has wilfully ignored and neglected its overarching duties under the Equality Act 2006: working towards a societythat respects and protects equality, human rights, dignity and worth, where people are not limited by prejudice or discrimination and can participate equally, with mutual respect and valuing of diversity.

Linda Burnip is co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts.

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