My Liberal Democrat Voice colleague, Caron Lindsay, has recently written about the proposed reform of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Given that I am one of those people who theoretically should benefit from its work, perhaps I ought to put some thoughts out there.
Let's start with the negatives. The EHRC was hobbled from its outset by Labour's insistence on packing its leadership with Labour hacks, who saw their role as a political one. It also suffered from appalling financial management and a sense of mission creep. It was symptomatic of an administration which thought that bigger was necessarily better. Sadly, they were wrong.
There is a serious problem with the quango state. Broadly unaccountable, the leadership of quangos reflects the nature of the people who put them there. And, because they have contracts, when a new government comes in, the scope for conflict is obvious. That isn't a party political point, far from it - in the event that the Labour Party win a future General Election, they will encounter a well-entrenched 'quangocracy' packed with Conservative and Liberal Democrat appointees.
By politicising the delivery of Government functions - as opposed to the strategy - you incentivise 'empire building' and mission creep, and you generate internal opposition to the government of the day. If you are a supporter of the Opposition, you are hardly likely to willingly accept the Government's policy stance, indeed, the temptation to oppose a potentially unpopular administration is strong. So, an obvious first lesson is "don't politicise your bureaucracy".
Secondly, poor financial management is exactly that. However, that in itself doesn't justify radical change in the role and function of an organisation, it justifies finding those responsible, and call me quirky and old-fashioned here, holding them to account. That may mean, whisper it gently, punishing the guilty.
Finally, the sheer scale and scope of the EHRC meant that it tended to focus on those aspects of its brief which were of greatest interest to those who led it. Most of those in the sector tend to be campaigners against a particular brand of discrimination, rather than discrimination in its broadest sense. That isn't a criticism - very few of us are political generalists - but it inevitably impacts on the work of the EHRC. If human rights are about managing competing demands, and I would suggest that they are to some extent, any subconscious leaning towards one group or another endangers the rights of others.
So, what is the EHRC for, or, better still, what might be its role?
I agree that responsibility for impact assessments should be taken away from the EHRC and taken back into 'proper government', perhaps into the Cabinet Office. To be blunt, the notion that the EHRC is truly independent is hard to take seriously. The fact that there are a plethora of campaigning bodies shining a light on government policy and its impacts reflects a broadly held view that the EHRC is, in itself, insufficient to hold government to account.
And yes, a fundamental change in the way that government makes policy needs to come at the same time. By having a proper debate, and having real, public consultation before introducing changes, the public and, in particular, affected parties, can raise all of the salient issues, and government can respond to them as appropriate. That might not mean that there are not losers from any changes, but at least the issues are in the open.
I do see a role for the EHRC in helping organisations to operate in a non-discriminatory way, highlighting potential issues, providing guidance on specific topics and, if necessary, taking action to enforce anti-discrimination legislation. It also should provide support to individuals and groups seeking to act against discrimination, informing them of their rights, and of channels through which to confront those who discriminate.
It is very easy to talk about major reform of organisations, much harder to talk about what such reform is intended to achieve. In a political culture where being seen to be busy appears more important than outcomes, I want to see more information about what the future form and function of the EHRC will be before I get horribly excited.