The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has come under pressure to explain why three of its top executives have resigned, calling into question the leadership of chairman Trevor Phillips.
Nicola Brewer, the chief executive, has quit the commission, and head of strategy Patrick Diamond has left to join the government as an adviser with immediate effect.
Kay Hampton, a former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) – which formed one third of the EHRC in 2006 – is also to step down.
Tensions have grown over the commission being ‘too close’ to the government – chairman Trevor Phillips is friendly with several ministers, including business secretary Peter Mandelson, who was his best man.
Last night it also emerged that the National Audit Office refused to sign off the organisation’s accounts because of alleged problems related to the CRE, which Phillips used to chair. These include the disappearance of about £30,000-worth of laptops when the organisation was wound down.
Brewer publically raised issues about the commission’s accounts last December, adding that Phillips had been paid freelance fees for consultancy work on diversity issues, which he has since stopped.
She resigned last week, taking some people by surprise, just days before publishing a major overhaul of maternity pay, which she led.
A spokesman for the commission said there was no connection between the departures and Phillip’s leadership. “The recent announcements about the departures of Nicola Brewer, Kay Hampton and Patrick Diamond, are in no way related,” he said.
He added: “Of course we will have our critics, in an area as complex as ours we would expect nothing less. And we will always listen to what others have to say about our performance.”
However, Phillips’ recent comments questioning the concept of institutional racism have made him a controversial figure in the equality sphere, and led some staff to believe more members of the management team will resign this week, according to newspaper reports.
Sue Bond, vice-chairman of the PCS union, which represents commission staff, told the Guardian that many were angry and frustrated.
“There is frustration because they feel that the commission is not making best use of its staff and its resources to become a strong and authoritative body that really punches its weight,” she said.