‘Hopeless’ Phillips condemned for equality watchdog spending

Author: By Andy McSmith

Their findings add fuel to the argument over Harriet Harman’s decision to
reappoint Trevor Phillips, the high-profile chairman of the Equality and
Human Rights Commission (EHRC), for a second term in office.

Though it was not Mr Phillips’s personal responsibility to hire staff, a
former commissioner, who has worked with Mr Phillips for a number of years,
said yesterday that the seven staff taken on improperly were people he knew
well.

“If he didn’t know what was going on then he is a hopeless chair, in my
view,” Kay Hampton, who resigned from the new Commission in April, said.

Yesterday’s report from the National Audit Office, which watches over public
spending, focused on the summer and autumn of 2007, when three government
bodies ? for racial equality, sex discrimination and disability rights ?
were wound up and absorbed into the new super commission, with over 400
staff and a £70m budget, chaired by Mr Phillips.

More than £11m was paid out in redundancy to staff who did not want to move
from the old quangos to the new. But in the run up to October 2007, when the
new commission was due to start operations, it was short of 140 staff and 15
out of 25 directors.

Seven staff from the old Commission for Racial Equality, which Trevor Phillips
headed in 2003-06, were hired as consultants, despite having just accepted
large redundancy cheques. Yesterday’s report said there was no evidence
there was even a gap between when they left one job and moved into another,
but they were not asked to pay back their severance money.

One had received £104,125, and was taken back on for 11 months and paid fees
totalling £105,216. In all, it cost £629,276 to make the seven staff
redundant, and £323,708 to re-employ them. That decision should have been
cleared with the Treasury, who did not find out until later and refused to
approve it.

Kay Hampton was Mr Phillips’s deputy at the former Commission for Racial
Equality, and headed it for 10 months until it went out of existence. She
was a commissioner on the EHRC until she resigned in April. Five out of 14
commissioners have resigned in two months, and two more are expected to quit
this week. Several have complained about Mr Phillips’s management style.

“Although Trevor Phillips and I have been friends at one point ? and were
colleagues for many years ? and I don’t care about his leadership style, I
have to say that these were people who were handpicked by Trevor in the CRE,”
she said yesterday.

“I’m not surprised by the issues raised in the National Audit Office
report. I picked up on some of these issues while I was still there. It
reached the point where, for my own personal integrity, I was not going to
be associated with the accounts. I’m very pleased that the accounts were
qualified. The public deserves to know the truth.”

Mr Phillips and his senior staff will face a grilling by the Commons’ Public
Accounts committee when MPs return from their summer break.

“Poor management and oversight following its creation resulted in EHRC
being understaffed and unprepared,” the committee chairman, Edward
Leigh, said yesterday. “The total cost to the taxpayer of paying off
these executives only to bring them back as consultants was almost £1m. The
Treasury, when it found out that public money had been used in this way,
refused to approve the payments.”

Mr Phillips’s defenders say that as a non-executive chairman, he did not
personally hire staff, and the officials who did have since left.

“Of course it’s terrible to get your first set of accounts qualified by
the National Audit Office,” one said. “But this was a time when
they were trying to get a £70m operation up and running, and there was a
feeling that they had done well just to get the place open on time.”

Harriet Harman’s decision to reappoint Mr Phillips last week came as a
surprise and provoked three commissioners to resign over the weekend. It was
rumoured that Mr Phillips might carry on for a short time before being given
a peerage and made a minister, but he has accepted his reappointment and
indicated that he means to serve another full, three-year term.

What is the EHRC?

The Commission for Equality and Human Rights was set up by an Act of
Parliament in 2006, to replace three bodies ? the Commission on Racial
Equality, the Disability Rights Commission, and the Equal Opportunities
Commission. It has 410 full-time staff, and employs about 120 agency staff
at any time ? slightly fewer than the 620 people working for the three
commissions it replaced.

*It is run by a board which, until April, was made up of the chairman, Trevor
Phillips, his deputy, Margaret Prosser, and 14 commissioners. Mr Phillips
and Mrs Prosser had their terms of office renewed last week, but Harriet
Harman told the commissioners they must reapply for their jobs, and that
there will be fewer of them. Five have resigned since April and two more are
likely to go.

*As well as upsetting some people by management style, Mr Phillips has caused
controversy through his strategy for combatting discrimination, dealing with
human rights as a whole rather than on racism, sexism etc. as discrete
issues. He created waves by criticising multiculturalism, a cause which many
anti-racist campaigners hold dear.

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