It's not often I'd defend the head of the Equalities & Human Rights Commission, but that's what I found myself doing on Saturday night while doing the paper review with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. She launched into a full scale attack of Trevor Phillips and accused him of playing the race card (I just about stopped myself laughing) as he defended his stewardship of the Commission. She also reckoned he is a closet Tory. She has launched a vicious attack on him in this morning's Independent.
Several of the EHRC commissioners have resigned over the last few weeks, along with the chief executive and communications director, Kamal Ahmed. Listening to Ben Summerskill (of Stonewall) explaining his resignation led me to believe that there was more to this than met they eye. He reckoned Trevor Phillips was 'not up to the job'. Funny how it had taken him three years to come to that conclusion.
It seems to me, looking in from the outside that there are three issues here.
Firstly, there are many people in the equalities industry (and that is what it has become) who don't think Trevor Phillips is sufficiently left wing enough. His criticism of multiculturalism has gone down like a cup of cold sick.
Secondly, the bringing together of the various vested interests into one body has not been easy. The gay lobby thinks Phillips doesn't pay it sufficient attention. Nor does the race lobby. Or the women's lobby. And so it goes on. Phillips has to manage all those vested interests. They have always been sceptical of him since making it clear before he took on the job that he was sceptical about the viability of a single body covering the whole gamut of equality and human rights issues.
That leads on to the third issue, which is his management style. Quango chief executives are normally consensus builders. They operate by the law of the common denominator. Phillips doesn't. he leads from the front and expects people to row in behind him. The various commissioners seem to have had some difficulty doing that. In their own bodies, they are used to getting their own way and have found it difficult to adjust.
Perhaps this is the ideal time for the Conservatives to review the whole issue of whether to retain the EHRC. It employs a massive 500 people and costs £70 million a year to run. In effect it has become a super-lobbying organisation.
UPDATE: Ben Summerskill has just sent me this...
Iain, you’re certainly right on one thing. A new Conservative government should look very carefully indeed at how much the EHRC is costing taxpayers. And as a body spending public money it should justify that cost. At Stonewall our income has gone up 150% in the last five years, much of that from companies across the private sector. They expect us to be able to justify every pound they spend with us on advice or research.
But where you should calm down, if I may, is over the idea that somehow criticism of Trevor Phillips is a loony-left conspiracy. I agree with him about a lot of things. However one core function of a non-executive director, whether of a public body or a public company, needs to be to say something if the person in charge isn’t delivering. Ministers in a new government will also be perfectly entitled to ask why no one blew the whistle if public money wasn’t being managed properly. Yours. Ben