The Equality and Human Rights Commission is expected to face a demand for "major surgery" when the Home Office publishes a consultation paper on its future. The commission, chaired by Trevor Phillips, survived October's "bonfire of the quangos" but ministers are expected to say on Tuesday they want its activities to be restricted to its core functions and the management of its finances to be sharply improved. It is expected to be stripped of responsibilities such as promoting social cohesion. The consultation is due to last only three months, with swift action to follow. The EHRC took over from the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission in 2007 to promote and enforce equality and anti-discrimination laws in England, Scotland and Wales.
Phillips told MPs this month that the commission had been considering "radical reform" over the past 12 months. The 630-strong staff has already been cut to 417 and is likely to be cut to between 200 and 250 over the next 18 months. Recent high-profile cases involving the commission, which have included successful legal action against the British National Party and support of legal action against the Christian owners of a Cornish guesthouse who refused to let a gay couple stay in a double room, have fuelled criticism among the Tory right. The commission's £53m budget for this financial year is already earmarked to fall to £45m for 2011/2012. The commission and the government's equalities office are due to share a much deeper cut by 2015.
The commission's helpline, its grant-making function and several of its offices are believed to be under threat. The civil service union PCS, which represents most of its staff, said ballot papers for industrial action were being sent out. Mark Serwotka, the PCS general secretary, said cuts on the scale being contemplated could mean employers and public authorities would no longer be held to account for discriminatory policies. He suggested the cuts could end the commission's legal work such as its support for Sharon Coleman, whose victory at the European court of justice ensured six million carers in Britain are protected against discrimination in employment. However, it is expected that the "strategic legal work" will remain an important part of the commission's future.
The commission said: "We plan to respond quickly to this consultation on our powers and duties so that other organisations are aware of our view of our future. It is too soon to comment until we have seen the proposals in detail. "The commission began its own review of its role and focus around 18 months ago, before the review of non-departmental bodies by the government. We are already talking to our staff and stakeholders about our vision for the commission's future and will continue to do so during this consultation and beyond." The commission saw a string of high-profile resignations from its board last year, including its finance director. Its 2008/09 accounts were qualified by the National Audit Office last July who said it had breached rules on pay rises for permanent staff and managed money badly.