City lawyer to chair equalities watchdog after seeking to calm conflict of interest fears

Pinsent Masons lawyer and former Stonewall chair David Isaac to become chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) after promising to step back from decisions around government contracts

By Matt Foster

27 Apr 2016

David Isaac has been named as the new chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), after seeking to calm MPs' fears over potential conflicts of interest because of his law firm's work for government.

The EHRC is the UK's national equality body, tasked by parliament with upholding human rights and anti-discrimination laws. It also offers advice to policymakers and public sector organisations on compliance.

Isaac is an equity partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, and, during the pre-appointments process for the EHRC role, MPs on both the joint committee on human rights and the equalities committee expressed concern because Pinsent carries out "significant work" for the government.

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But the lawyer, who served for almost a decade as chair of LGBT charity Stonewall and was awarded a CBE in 2011 for services to equality and diversity, told the equalities committee that while he would continue to receive "a small indirect benefit from government work" through Pinsent Mason, its work for departments had "significantly diminished" in recent years.

Isaac also said he would step back from any decisions concerning the law firm's government work, and pointed out that government was "very keen to get either practising lawyers or business people into positions to assist" the public sector, whether in central departments or agencies.

Although MPs have yet to issue a report on Isaac's appointment, education secretary Nicky Morgan (pictured) has now written to the chairs of both parliamentary committees saying she is satisfied that "any potential conflicts of interest can and will be addressed", and saying it is "now right to make this important appointment without further delay".

Morgan says the new EHRC chair has vowed to ensure that he does not receive profit as an equity partner from work carried out by Pinsent Masons on behalf of government, and has "made clear that he will not be involved in any aspect of advising government clients of Pinsent Masons while he holds the role".

She adds: "I am sure you will agree that this addresses issues raised by the committee, ensuring that any potential or perceived conflict of interest is fully and satisfactorily dealt with".

In a departmental statement announcing the appointment, Morgan said Isaac had "an impressive track record and brings a range of experience both from his work on LGB&T issues and human rights and as an experienced lawyer".

"We are confident that in his role as chair of the EHRC he will be a strong and effective advocate for equality and human rights in Britain," she added.

Isaac – who said he was "delighted" to have been offered the "important" role and intended to accept it – will succeed Baroness Onora O'Neill as EHRC chair.

Earlier this year, the EHRC published a wide-ranging review of Britain's progress on equality and the protection of human rights since 2010, drawing on data sets provided by public bodies, regulators, inspectors and NGOs.

That report – Is Britain Fairer? – found that overall income inequality had fallen since 2010, but highlighted a "deepening inter-generational divide" since the financial crisis, with people under 34 experiencing the sharpest fall in incomes, employment, access to housing, and pay.

The report also warned that some marginalised groups – including transgender people, those aged over 80, and gypsies and travellers – were slipping under the radar of public organisations because of a lack of robust data and targeted research.

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