Leading article: An unsatisfactory public appointment

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The Independent Online

Three years ago the Government decided to merge the old Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission in a brand new body, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The argument was that this quango would inaugurate a fresh era of opportunity for the dispossessed and marginalised. Three years later, that dream lies in tatters as the body's accounts have been rejected by the National Audit Office, six of its commissioners have resigned and its chairman, Trevor Phillips, is widely criticised as not up to the job.

There are some who blame the system itself for this failure, arguing that it was always impossible to mix the roles of championing gay rights, disability support and anti-racial discrimination. Others put it down to the leadership, or lack of it, by Mr Phillips. While his supporters praise his readiness to embrace new approaches to equality and his consummate communication skills, his critics have charged him with being too close to the Government, arguing that he has lacked the authority necessary to meld the disparate groups gathered in the new Commission together.

So, given these complaints, why was his contract as chairman renewed by the Equalities Minister, Harriet Harman, earlier this month with barely a word of explanation? The easy answer, according to Whitehall gossip, is the protection offered by his friendship with the influential Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson. Perhaps this is true, perhaps not. But the point is that the public, who pay for this job, have been kept completely in the dark. Once again, we have been left to witness a public appointment process that has no supervision and no transparency. If the British political system is really to be reformed, here is one of the points at which we should start. All major public jobs should be subject to the scrutiny of Commons select committees before they are confirmed, just as they are in the US, by Congressional committees.

The alternative is the sorry scene now on display at the Equalities Commission: an organisation ridden with conflict within and incapable of exercising its function without.