Race row erupts at equality watchdog as staff say all managers will be white

Ethnic minorities, women and disabled staff go in latest redundancies
  • @andymcsmith

Britain's equality watchdog could be left with an "all white" senior management because of Government-imposed cuts, employees have claimed.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is being chopped down to a fraction of its original size, with staff numbers cut from a peak of 420 to 180.

So far, generous redundancy terms have seen the cuts carried out through voluntary redundancies, but it is feared that dozens of people may have to be sacked in the autumn as volunteers dry up.

A high proportion of those in line to lose their jobs are women, disabled or from ethnic minorities – the very sections of the population most vulnerable to the kind of discrimination the EHRC was set up in 2007 to prevent.

The EHRC has attracted criticism in the past because of financial management and complaints about the leadership of its £112,000 a year part-time chairman, Trevor Phillips.

Mr Phillips's six-year chairmanship ends on 10 September. His former deputy, Margaret Prosser, a former TGWU transport union official, will act as interim head of the organisation while the hunt goes on for a successor.

In a letter to Baroness Prosser, 124 staff members have warned that when the cuts are complete, the senior management will be "all white" – although this was denied by an EHRC spokeswoman, who said new ethnic minority appointments were in the pipeline.

The cuts include reducing the number of commissioners from 14 to eight, which means that the majority have been told they must re-apply for their positions.

Insiders complain the job advertisement published by the Cabinet Office lists senior level finance, commercial business experience, and legal skills as essential qualifications while making only passing reference to a background in equality.

The Minister for Equalities, Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone, has ordered the Commission to cut its budget from £50m to £26m in the coming year – but its management are working to a budget of £18m in anticipation of a new round of cuts. Lester Holloway, a Liberal Democrat councillor campaigning against the cuts, said he is "ashamed" at the part played by Liberal Democrat ministers such as Ms Featherstone.

"The commission will be less able to hold public bodies to account and as a result equality may well fall down the agenda. The scaling down of casework will certainly affect those who are not represented as a result, and failure to strengthen case law through test cases is to the detriment of everyone who falls under those categories of people who suffer discrimination," said Mr Holloway.

Mark Hammond, the EHRC's chief executive, said: "We don't have any choice about cutting jobs to match our reduced budget... but we are being fair and transparent as we go about it. Our staff diversity is one of the best in government and far better than the average employer in Britain. We are doing everything possible to maintain that record, including using positive action."