MPs back new equalities watchdog – but warn Cabinet Office over transparency

MPs warn key details on new Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman "were not forthcoming" as they weighed up conflict of interest concerns

By Civil Service World

09 May 2016

Two parliamentary commitees have criticised the government for failing to provide "basic facts" as MPs decided whether or not to back the appointment of the new chair of the Britain's equalities watchdog.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is tasked by parliament with upholding human rights and anti-discrimination laws.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan last week confirmed that David Isaac, an equity partner at law firm Pinsent Masons and a former chair of LGBT charity Stonewall, had been appointed to chair the EHRC. Ahead of that announcement, both the Women and Equalities Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights voiced concern that Pinsent Masons' "significant" number of government contracts could leave Isaac exposed to conflict of interest claims.

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Both committees have now issued their formal verdicts. While they back Isaac's appointment – with the Equalities Committee saying a confirmation that he is to step back from decisions on the law firm's government work goes "a considerable way towards" satisfying its concerns – they criticise the Cabinet Office for its handling of the process.

The Equalities Committee says more detail on the government's internal deliberations should have been made available to MPs, and they suggest that a rethink of the public appointments rules may be needed to ensure potential conflicts of interest are picked up at an earlier stage.

Committee chair Maria Miller welcomed the fact that a candidate with Isaac's private sector experience had stepped forward, but she warned that the process of filling top public sector jobs needed "to command the confidence of members of the public".

"MPs have been given a central role in scrutinising that decision making yet some aspects of this are opaque," she added.

"In this case the appointments panel did not document any discussion as to how Mr Isaac would balance his role as a senior equity partner in an international law firm with the role of chair of the EHRC despite potential and perceived conflicts of interest and possible issues around the Nolan Principles. Records of further conversations between Mr Isaac and the Cabinet Office were also unavailable to the committee. 

"To scrutinise important appointment decisions House of Commons committees need basic facts. In this case these were not forthcoming" – Equalities Committee chair Maria Miller MP

"To scrutinise important appointment decisions House of Commons committees need basic facts. In this case these were not forthcoming. In our report, we recommend that the pre-appointment scrutiny guidelines be reviewed."

Harriet Harman, chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, meanwhile urged the government "to learn lessons from the failure of their appointment process to identify this potential conflict of interest".

She added: "It shouldn't be down to select committee to identify such an obvious problem at a late stage in the process. The government need to ensure in future that potential conflicts of interest affecting candidates for senior public positions are rigorously identified and addressed as a routine part of their recruitment, particularly for posts such as this where independence, including independence from government, is so crucial to the role."

While backing Isaac's appointment, the Equalities Committee also expresses some concern about the potential for conflicts of interest should the EHRC take any enforcement action against a client represented by Pinsent Masons.

"As a solicitor Mr Isaac will have a duty of loyalty to Pinsent Masons’ clients which is difficult to reconcile with the Nolan Principles which require a public official to act solely in the public interest and in an open and transparent manner," the committee says.

"While we note that EHRC Board decisions are strategic rather than operational, there nevertheless does appear to be a risk of an apparent conflict of interest. And since the proceedings of the Board are private, there is no transparency. 

They add: "The evidence to date does not explain fully how this perception would be resolved. We consider that some mechanism needs to be found for dealing with this potential problem and require that Mr Isaac reflect on this and inform us of what steps he plans to take in this regard by a month from receipt of this Report."

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