EHRC chairman Trevor Phillips defends ‘painful’ allegations of intimidation

The equality watchdog chairman has defended himself against “painful” allegations that he isolated and intimidated commissioners, causing them to resign.

Trevor Phillips gave evidence to the Human Rights Select Committee today, a group of MPs who are investigating why the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) endured a spate of resignations by commissioners earlier this year.

Giving evidence to the same committee in October, four commissioners – three of whom had previously resigned – described Phillips’ leadership as “sofa government” which restricted access, and said he intimidated and isolated those who tried to hold him to account.

But when the accusations were put to Phillips by the committee, he said today: “The picture that you paint is not one that I recognise.

“There were some commissioners that came before [the committee] and made their feelings known, but there are a dozen more that didn’t express themselves in the same terms.”

He said “the board by and large is pretty open” with topics being discussed and generating debate.

He added: “One of the early criticisms that my colleagues made was that meetings went on slightly too long as it’s my habit to allow anyone wanting to come into the discussion to come in.”

But Phillips later conceded commissioners could have held the view that he had isolated and intimidated them.

He said: “The picture is really not one that I personally recognise, but that’s not to say I don’t believe people could interpret it in that way.”

He added: “Of course this is painful, none of this is pleasant, not because it reflects on me personally but because it distracts from the important work of the commission, and that’s what I regret the most here.

“If I could find a way of that not happening, if I could have acted differently and can now act differently to ensure that doesn’t happen, you can be sure that would be at the top of my personal list.”

Phillips said he regretted that the commissioners did not feel able to air their views internally.

“What I will say is I really regret it, if people felt that way, I wish either in our closed sessions or in our board meetings that they had expressed it,” he said.

“It seems to me that most members of the board never had any trouble disagreeing with the board or with me.”

The chairman did, however, admit that he was wrong not to delay the launch of the EHRC in 2007, as having more time to set up could have helped to bring the commissioners together.

However, when asked by the committee what he would do differently if he could, Phillips said: “I think I would have set more time to create the commission. In a sense that was something I should have thought more about.”

Phillips added the decision of the chief executive Nicola Brewer to resign in March was not due to tensions between the pair, but because she received another job offer.

He said: “I can’t speak for Brewer on this, all I can say is when she told me of the [job] offer she told it to me with some regret but with a great deal of pleasure which I shared.”

He also said when the EHRC replaced the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in 2007, the decision to rehire members of staff who had previously received a redundancy package from the CRE should have come to the board’s attention before early 2009. The board learnt of the re-contracting of the staff after it was raised by an audit and risk committee.

He told the committee: “Certainly you are right we should have seen it first, and we will tighten up the way we operate so these things come to the board more quickly.”

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