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What recent representations she has received on the recommendations in the Fifteenth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, HC 124.
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Since the report was published on
The Committee revealed that several staff members of the legacy commissions left through an early exit scheme, and were subsequently rehired by the new commission at a cost of £338,708. Does the Minister agree that that represents a shocking waste of taxpayers' hard-earned money?
The hon. Gentleman, and the House, will know that there is a system for monitoring the finances of non-departmental public bodies. They are subject to the scrutiny of accounting officers, and there is a framework to ensure that public money is properly spent and everything is kept in order. We are concerned for two reasons. First, we want to ensure that every pound of public money that comes from taxpayers is properly spent, wherever in the public sector it is spent. We are also concerned to ensure that the Equality and Human Rights Commission works well, because we-unlike his good self, no doubt, and many Opposition Members, unfortunately-are concerned about equality.
As I have said, there are proper frameworks for arranging for non-departmental public bodies to spend money, which they do independently. They are not Government Departments and are subject to a framework, and to scrutiny and accountability. Obviously, we want to make sure that they spend all that money wisely, but individual payments are the responsibility of accounting officers and the chief executive, not my responsibility as Minister for Women and Equality-although obviously, we are concerned to ensure that every pound of public money is properly spent, and that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is an important organisation, does its job properly.
That framework and accountability mechanism seems to have broken down, because in July 2009 the commission itself found that it was employing some 574 full-time equivalent staff when it was authorised to employ only 525. Is not that another shocking waste of public money?
Where there have been concerns they have been pointed out, and the commission has taken steps to address them. That is part of the process of transparency: where public money is being spent, there is scrutiny to make sure that it is being spent in the right way, in order to meet the important public policy objective of pursuing equality. That is what is happening.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, also reported on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It asked the Minister why she reappointed the chairman of that body without putting the appointment out to open competition. How is that transparent and accountable?
As I said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights when it called me in to give evidence, the chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission had left her post. Especially because the Equality Bill was going through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, I felt that we needed continuity of leadership, and therefore that it was right to reappoint the chair and vice-chair. Obviously, we were then going to need to find new commissioners and a new chief executive, but we did not want a wholesale change of personnel in this important organisation at a critical time.
Hon. Members should look at the substance of the work that has been done by the commission. They should look at the important inquiry into sex discrimination in the financial sector; the important legal challenge to the apartheid constitution of the British National party; the work on the unfairness to agency workers in the meat packing industry; and the important evidence the commission gave on the question of the default retirement age. The question is this: are hon. Members-I exclude Dr. Harris, who asked the question, from this, because I accept his good faith-interested in discrimination against people on the ground of age, discrimination against agency workers, and discrimination against women in the financial services sector? Members from the official Opposition are having a go at the commission as a proxy for the fact that they do not like the onward march of equality.
This is an apposite moment to come into this debate, because my charge is that the EHRC is not doing the work that it should be doing. Does the Minister agree that it should spend less time pontificating on what organisations should and should not do, and far more time using its powers and legal challenges to hold businesses and public bodies to account, and on enforcing the legislation that already exists, which it is not doing to any great degree?
The commission is making sure that it plays its part in enforcing existing legislation, and works with us to help to shape future legislation. It is also making sure that it looks at all the places where inequality exists, works with all the organisations-business, trade unions and voluntary organisations-and helps individuals. I know that the hon. Lady shares my concern that where there is inequality, it needs to be tackled. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is an important part of the process for making that happen.