Unmasking the EHRC

Unmasking the EHRC

Campaign for Chris Williamson | 4 August 2020

Despite the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s noble name, the reality of how it has operated since it was established almost thirteen years ago tells a very different story.

The EHRC came into existence through the Equality Act 2006, replacing several different bodies to become the chief enforcer of equality and non-discrimination laws in Great Britain.

A bad start

But only two years after it began operating, six out of eighteen members of the EHRC’s ruling body resigned, explicitly criticising Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the EHRC at the time. One of those resigned Commissioners, Francesca Klug said, in evidence to a Select Committee, that:

There was an atmosphere that I experienced of intimidation sometimes in holding the Chair to account. There would be those commissioners who would fiercely oppose you if you raised your voice … to disagree with what the Chair had said and that sense of being strongly reprimanded I think did create some atmosphere of intimidation.

Concerns had also been raised about Phillips’s comments regarding race, and about his alleged proximity to the New Labour government.

During his time at the EHRC, Phillips had questioned the concept of ‘institutional racism’; called for Britain to “scrap multiculturalism”; and said that the country was “sleepwalking [its] way to segregation” with “fully fledged ghettos”.

Latterly, Phillips has argued that British Muslims are “becoming a nation within a nation”; he has said that “Muslims are not like us”; that Muslims “see the world differently from the rest of us”; and “I thought Europe’s Muslims would gradually blend into the landscape. I should have known better”. In March 2020, he was suspended from the Labour Party for his alleged Islamophobic statements.

But it wasn’t just Phillips’s comments that caused concern. He had been close, for some time, to a number of high-profile figures in the New Labour government, including Peter Mandelson, who was best man at his wedding.

In fact, he was so close to the government that, when a revolt began over his leadership, it was reported that Peter Mandelson and Harriet Harman hatched a plan to give Phillips a seat in the House of Lords, as well as a ministerial position, in a botched attempt to manage the controversy.

But the problems didn’t end with Trevor Phillips. The Commission is a quango and, by its very design, lacks independence. Senior figures at the Commission owe their positions to the government, which also pays their handsome salaries. Meanwhile, hardworking junior staff are starved of resources to properly investigate discrimination.

In 2017, the Commission was accused of targeting Black, Muslim, and disabled staff for compulsory redundancies. Just recently, it was reported that two former Commissioners, the only Black and Muslim commissioners at the time, said that they lost their positions at the Commission in 2012 because they were considered “too loud and vocal” about issues of race.

Singling out the Left

In recent years, the EHRC’s lack of independence has led to its purpose being subverted in order to attack the British Left, Jeremy Corbyn, and his supporters. The warning signs came as early as September 2017, when the EHRC’s Chief Executive, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said:

Anti-semitism is racism and the Labour Party needs to do more to establish that it is not a racist party.

No major political party has ever been singled out by the EHRC in this way. Even the Tories haven’t faced such scrutiny, despite being responsible for some of the most egregious racism exhibited in public life today, targeting Muslims and Black people in particular.

The number of alleged cases of antisemitism in the Labour Party are miniscule, and were clearly exaggerated as part of a pernicious smear campaign against Corbyn and his supporters. But that didn’t stop the Commission from targeting the Party.

Labour had inflicted a major blow to the Tories at the 2017 general election, and fears about a potential Corbyn premiership had sent shockwaves through the Establishment.

Vested interests

It should be remembered, that for the vast majority of its existence, the Commission has operated under a Conservative government, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The Tories have stacked the EHRC with business-friendly Commissioners, none of whom have a history in the anti-racist movement and many who have significant conflicting interests. Most notably, they appear to have personal, financial, or professional interests that would have suffered under a Corbyn-led government.

Caroline Waters worked for a time and continues to holds shares in BT, a company whose value would have been threatened by the 2019 Labour manifesto pledge to deliver free full-fibre broadband to all by 2030.

Suzanne Baxter worked for over 20 years at the outsourcing firms Serco and Mitie, and retains shares in Mitie. Both companies would have been threatened by Labour plans to move against outsourcing.

Alasdair Henderson stood as a candidate for the Whig Party against Labour in the 2015 general election.

Helen Mahy is a director of the energy company SSE, a company that Labour had pledged to bring into public ownership.

Mark McLane is a former executive at Barclays and retains shares in the company, the value of which would have been threatened by the Labour pledge to create a ‘Post Bank’.

Pavita Cooper even donated to the Tory party and breached the rules by failing to disclose it.  Even after it was disclosed, she continued to claim that she had only donated to a personal friend and not to the party proper, a claim that appears to be false.

These conflicting interests could provide part of the explanation for the EHRC’s skewed decision-making processes. 

For example, in February 2018, Young Labour, which is the Party’s youth movement, proposed a one-day National Equalities conference, open to: women, BAME, LGBT+, and disabled people. The conference was to elect some of Young Labour’s equalities officers. But almost as soon as the conference was proposed, the Commission swooped in to shut it down following an outpouring of faux outrage from Tory politicians. The EHRC said that the conference could constitute “unlawful discrimination” because it was only open to people from groups that suffer discrimination.

A pattern of behaviour was emerging in how the Commission interpreted its legal powers: singling out and undermining the Official Opposition on behalf of the Conservative Party.

Investigating the Labour Party

This reached fever pitch in May 2019, when the EHRC opened an investigation to determine whether the Labour Party had “unlawfully discriminated against, harassed, or victimised people because they’re Jewish”. 

The investigation was launched following lobbying efforts by two anti-Corbyn and pro-Israel outfits: the self-styled ‘Jewish Labour Movement’ (JLM) and the so-called ‘Campaign Against Antisemitism’ (CAA). Both organisations are strongly committed to Israel. 

The Jewish Labour Movement is affiliated to the Labour Party and likes to pretend that it is simply there to represent Jewish members of the Party. In fact, anyone—Jewish or not—can join, so long as they support Israel. The JLM is constitutionally bound to support Israel, to “promote […] Zionism” and the “centrality of Israel in Jewish life”.

One of the JLM’s former leaders, Jeremy Newmark, has stated that the JLM “is not a foreign policy group nor is it an Israel advocacy organization [sic]”. This is simply false. The JLM is a member of the Zionist Federation, which is in turn a member of the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) based in Israel and one of the four ‘National Institutions that, together with the Israeli government, make up the leadership of the transnational Zionist movement.

The WZO congress is the ultimate source of authority in the movement. It has codified the ‘duties of the Individual Zionist, a document passed first at the 1972 congress. The most recent version in 1991 enjoins each member—including members of the JLM—to be an ‘active member’ of Zionist groups; “to endeavor [sic] to implement the program of the Zionist movement”; to “contribute” to Zionist fundraising; and “to strengthen Zionist influence within the community”.  

The CAA, by contrast, is not a formal member of the Zionist movement, but its chair Gideon Falter is a board member of the UK branch of the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Despite its name, the JNF is not an organisation that raises money for all Jews. It is, instead, the State of Israel’s land purchasing ethnic cleansing agency; responsible for encouraging Zionist settlement in historic Palestine; and was, until recently, constitutionally forbidden from selling land to Arabs. The JNF is another of the four of the State of Israel's ‘National institutions’. The CAA was created in 2014 in order to defend Israel’s reputation as a result of its war on Gaza that year. By Falter’s account he was motivated by criticism of Israel in the media: “the fastidious disregard for the facts and the insistence on holding Israel to exceptional, impossible standards”.

Unsurprisingly, Falter appears to have form in using antisemitism as a weapon against critics of Israel. Back in 2009, Falter apparently “tipped off the media” about an allegedly false complaint of antisemitism that he had made against a Foreign Office diplomat, Rowan Laxton. At the appeal against Laxton's conviction, “The judge and two magistrates” were “unanimous in agreeing that he never at any time said ‘f*cking Jews’”. The claim that Laxton had made such a remark whilst watching a news report about the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2009—something he had always denied—was seemingly bogus. However, by then, the damage was done: right-wing, pro-Israel blogs were quick to reproduce the false allegations.

Secret conflicts of interest

Among those that have contributed money to the CAA is a little-known charity called the Anglo-Jewish Association (AJA). The Association was created in 1871 and remains involved in the Jewish Colonization Association which began operation in what it calls ‘Israel’ from 1900, though of course no such state then existed. Its charitable objects include “promotion of goodwill towards Israel”.

The relevance of this is that Rebecca Hilsenrath’s husband, Michael, was Deputy President of the AJA when a £5,000 donation was made to the CAA to contribute to their widely ridiculed ‘antisemitism barometer’, listed under ‘Research’ on the CAA website. The AJA donated to this ‘research’ at some point between July 2015 and June 2016. The precise timing of the donation, however, is unimportant; the proximity between the AJA and the CAA seems clear. Contrary to the EHRC’s rules, Hilsenrath did not disclose this conflict of interest arising from her husband’s involvement with the AJA.

The CAA first complained to the EHRC about the Labour Party in July 2018. Hilsenrath had oversight of the EHRC’s response until she eventually was relieved of responsibility six months later.

At an EHRC board meeting in January 2019, as the EHRC was considering the probe on antisemitism, Hilsenrath disclosed that she “was an active member of the Anglo-Jewish Community”. The board decided that there was no evidence of any conflict of interest but that Hilsenrath should recuse herself from determination regarding the matter.

As a disclosure of a conflict of interest, Hilsenrath’s statement is inadequate; it is not a conflict of interest to be an ‘active member’ of any ethnic, racial or religious community and as such there is no reason for Hilsenrath to recuse herself on the grounds of being Jewish. A proper conflict of interest statement would have detailed the potential conflicts of interests raised by whatever ‘active’ involvement in the ‘Anglo-Jewish community’ Hilsenrath had in mind, so that each could be assessed. It is notable that neither on appointment nor in the light of the specific investigation into the Labour Party did Hilsenrath do this.

In addition to the stunning revelation that her husband had been involved in funding the CAA, there are other conflicts that have not been disclosed.  For example Hilsenrath was co-founder of the Hertsmere Jewish Day School, and then Yavneh College in Hertfordshire”. Both of these schools self describe as Zionist or ‘Religious Zionist. The schools, in other words, inculcate a political outlook as opposed to merely a religious or spiritual one, and one that is inimical to the fostering of a culture of human rights and opposition to racism. It is obviously inappropriate for any official or staff member of the EHRC to be a committed Zionist.

We can note two other instances, which are problematic for similar reasons. The first is the case of Adam Wagner, who was instructed by the Campaign Against Antisemitism to present its submission to the EHRC. Wagner was already on an EHRC panel of preferred counsel. Wagner has also stated, in December 2019, that he had joined the JLM, making him a formal member of the Zionist movement. Just days before the EHRC declared it would undertake an investigation into the Labour Party, it was announced that Sarah Sackman, vice-chair of the JLM, had been appointed to the EHRC’s panel of counsel.

Secondly, in 2016, the pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle had reported the appointment of incoming chair of the EHRC, David Isaac under the headline ‘Equal opportunity knocks’. It reported approvingly that ‘there is a strong Jewish presence at the top’ of the EHRC. The piece remained online for some time and was still live on the Chronicle's website on 28 May 2019, when the EHRC announced the inquiry into the Labour Party, but was deleted shortly thereafter, being gone by 22 June at the latest. An article stating the faiths of commissioners ought to be uncontroversial, unless the Chronicle’s editors considered this as imputing something about their political views. 

A clear lack of independence

More glaringly, the EHRC has singularly refused to take any action against the Conservative Party over Islamophobia. This is despite repeated calls on the EHRC by the Muslim Council of Britain to open an investigation into widely documented allegations of Islamophobic and racist behaviour by Tory members, including the current Tory leader. Instead, they’ve determined that the Tories are capable of investigating themselves. Yet, we’re supposed to believe that the EHRC is independent and impartial.

But even Rebecca Hilsenrath has sounded alarm bells about the Commission’s lack of independence. It was revealed on Newsnight, late last year, that Hilsenrath had sent a letter to the head of the civil service, with concerns about the current Chair of the Commission, David Isaac. She said:

David [Isaac] regularly declines to take public positions […] Recent examples include the publication of a piece of research into the implications of losing access to EU structural funds, and the stripping of Shamima Begum’s citizenship.

The implication, it would seem, is that Isaac’s refusal to take positions on issues that might embarrass the government, shows his reluctance to challenge this Tory regime.

Isaac comes from a big City law firm, Pinsent Masons, where he continues to work as an equity partner and is paid up to £620,000 a year on top of his Commission salary. The firm enjoys a number of lucrative government contracts. Whilst Isaac is no longer involved in those contracts, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this is a conflict of interest.

Isaac has also written for the conservative think tank Bright Blue, which has been provided with ‘support’ by the Commission on his watch. The think tank also published an attack piece ‘The Corbynites and antisemitism written by Stephen Pollard, editor of the pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle.

Isaac’s work with Bright Blue appears to fit into a pattern of Commission bosses working hand in glove with conservative think tanks. Indeed, Trevor Phillips is a senior fellow at the Islamophobic pro-Israel think tank, Policy Exchange.

It seems pretty clear that the Commission lacks independence, is institutionally racist, and has been abusing its legal mandate by attacking the Official Opposition. 

In our view, the Commission’s conduct played a leading role in derailing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and in legitimising a McCarthyite smear campaign that only gets more menacing by the day.

It would appear that, far from being an ‘equalities watchdog’, the EHRC has become a right-wing attack dog.