Parliamentary inquiries pile further pressure on Phillips

Author: By Nigel Morris, Deputy political editor

Mr Phillips is fighting for his future as head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) after a spate of resignations and criticism of his management style. The Tories are also threatening to overhaul the watchdog if they win the next election. Although the Government publicly declared its support for Mr Phillips yesterday, ministers are expected to hold urgent meetings about the problems engulfing the EHRC.

Six commissioners have resigned in the past four months, with a seventh understood to be on the verge of standing down. Critics claim Mr Phillips is using the organisation as a platform to raise his profile and accuse him of failing to consult colleagues.

His opponents believe the Norwich North by-election distracted ministers from the growing unease over his leadership of the EHRC. Senior MPs warned yesterday that the in-fighting was paralysing the ability of the watchdog to carry out its job effectively.

Both the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee and the Joint Human Rights Committee are planning inquiries. Phyllis Starkey, chairwoman of the communities committee, said: “Trevor clearly needs to take steps to address the concerns and bring the organisation together. He needs to get a grip.”

Ben Summerskill, of the gay rights group Stonewall, who became the sixth of the 17 commissioners to quit, called for Mr Phillips to step down. “Trevor is a very nice guy and I hope he will find a way … to go with dignity and with a recognition of all his energy and efforts,” he said. Baroness Greengross, vice-president of Age Concern, is also thought to be preparing to quit as a commissioner.

In a further blow to Mr Phillips, his close ally Kamal Ahmed resigned as director of communications to take up a post as a newspaper executive. Friends stressed he still strongly supported Mr Phillips.

Last week the EHRC was criticised by a public spending watchdog for paying nearly £325,000 to seven senior staff re-employed after taking generous early severance packages. The National Audit Office refused to fully sign off its accounts after it paid out the consultancy fees without Treasury permission. Harriet Harman, the Equalities minister, appointed Mr Phillips to a second three-year term as EHRC chairman two weeks ago and is shortly to select eight new commissioners to oversee the work of a streamlined EHRC. The Commission dismissed suggestions that Mr Phillips would resign.

Downing Street yesterday stressed Gordon Brown had full confidence in him. Tory sources said they supported the principles of the ECHR, but believed it had been unwieldy. They said its structure would be reviewed by an incoming Tory administration.

Lord Rix, president of the charity Mencap, said Mr Phillips had “made a mess” of the organisation. He said: “The Commission now is a bit of a laughing stock ? it is totally discredited, I think.”

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