MPs criticise equalities watchdog chairman Trevor Phillips

Embattled equalities watchdog chairman Trevor Phillips was today criticised by an influential group of MPs and peers.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) voiced concerns over Mr Phillips' leadership and questioned Cabinet minister Harriet Harman's decision to push through his reappointment.

The findings follow the resignation of six commissioners from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) last year in protest at Mr Phillips' chairmanship.

They had complained that the body's board was dysfunctional, with members feeling intimidated by Mr Phillips and warned that his links to a consultancy firm were a potential conflict of interest.

In its report, the JCHR conceded that establishing the commission by merging other watchdogs in 2007 and developing a "strong corporate board" had been a challenging task, but added: "We conclude that in the early years of the EHRC's existence this was not done successfully, for which the chair must bear responsibility."

The committee also took issue with the way Ms Harman, the equalities minister, reappointed Mr Phillips to his £112,000 post for another three years.

"In our view, the reappointment of the chair and deputy chair of the EHRC should on this occasion have been subject to open competition, to help restore confidence in the organisation and its leadership following the well-publicised difficulties the EHRC faced in 2009.

"The Minister's decision simply to reappoint Mr Phillips without any parliamentary involvement could undermine the perceived independence of the Commission and put its accreditation as a national human rights institution at risk."

The report welcomed the fact that Mr Phillips had now given up his involvement with media consultancy firm Equate.

"It would appear, however, that it took some time before Mr Phillips was persuaded to take the action necessary to address the perception of a conflict of interest caused by his involvement with Equate," it added.

The committee also repeated a call for Mr Phillips to remove references to Equate from his personal website.

And it voiced concerns about the neutrality of the EHRC, saying the body's "credibility across the political spectrum would be enhanced if it included at least one commissioner with links to the Conservative Party".

Mr Phillips is being investigated by Commons Standards Commissioner John Lyon over allegations that he tried to influence committee members writing the report.

JCHR chairman Andrew Dismore said: "Major questions remain over the leadership of the EHRC. We regret that the reappointment of the chair was not subject to open competition.

"We were disappointed to hear about perceived conflicts between Mr Phillips and a number of commissioners, well respected in their fields, who resigned.

"The lack of a cohesive board has undoubtedly impacted on the EHRC's work."

An EHRC spokesman said many of the issues raised by the MPs and peers had been addressed.

"We have a new, stronger board working positively together. We also have significant human rights achievements to our name - for example the protection of people in care homes and the legal case we took to ensure that our military personnel were given adequate protection when serving oversees," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Government Equalities Office said: "Following the departure of the chief executive, it was important to have continuity of leadership for the Commission over this critical period, with the Equality Bill before Parliament."