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Education Secretary criticised for appointing new EHRC chief with 'vested interests'

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The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has come under fire from two parliamentary committees, over her appointment of the new Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), David Isaac.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the Women and Equalities Committee have written to Mrs Morgan, warning of a potential conflict of interest, because his legal firm carries out "significant work for the government".

Nicky Morgan had nominated David Isaac as her preferred candidate after he was put forward by a Whitehall selection panel.

The criticism of her choice comes only weeks after Christian Concern's Chief Executive, Andrea Williams, wrote to Mrs Morgan urging her to reconsider, due to concerns that Mr Isaac could not act as impartial Chair. Mr Isaac is a former head of the LGBT pressure group Stonewall.

'Vested interests'

Harriet Harman MP, the JCHR Chair, said that there was "obviously a conflict of interest", because the EHRC often takes up cases against the government.

She went on:

"What you should be having for the EHRC is someone who is a champion for human rights... You have to be fearless against the vested interests. You've got to be an agent for change," she said.

"The lion's share of his income will be coming from an organisation that has a vested interest. As they say, 'he who pays the piper calls the tune'."

During Mr Isaac's scrutiny hearing, the former Chief Justice Lord Woolf asked how Mr Isaac could prevent his legal work from influencing his position as the new EHRC chief:

"Do you think there is any risk that that person, knowing that you are a partner of the sort you are, would say, 'I know why I have not been helped by the commission: it is because the chairman is actually in a firm of solicitors, and, directly or indirectly, his earnings from that firm are going to be affected by the amount of work the firm gets from the very department of government that he wants the commission to bring an action against'?"

According to Lord Woolf, this would be a difficult situation to "redress".

Mr Isaac has claimed that he will not be doing any work for government clients whilst acting as Chair.

Harriet Harman, however, insisted that this is inadequate, as the perception of vested interest would still remain.

In light of this, Ms Harman has suggested instead that he temporarily step down from his role as partner at a law firm.

'Complete lack of confidence' in EHRC's impartiality

In reply, a source close to Nicky Morgan said:

"We are baffled why Harriet Harman wouldn't prefer someone with direct experience of working with the gay community, who also has experience of working in the business community".

Such a statement reinforces concerns about David Isaac's impartiality, given his history of promoting the LGBT agenda, particularly through his role as Chair of Stonewall.

In a letter to Nicky Morgan expressing these concerns last month, Andrea Williams described Isaac's nomination as an “absurdity”.

Referring to his previous position at Stonewall, she stated:

"Appointing a Commission Chair who previously led a pressure group with such an agenda would lead to a complete lack of confidence in the impartiality of the Commission from Government."

'Hierarchy of rights'

She continued by outlining how his appointment could further remove protections for religious freedom.

"The Equality Act 2010 outlines the rights of protected groups but does not address the question of how competing interests are to be 'balanced' when conflicts arise. In this way, it has created a hierarchy of rights.

"Poor drafting has resulted in the rights of those who identify as homosexual being consistently privileged over the rights of Christians, particularly with regards to historic views on marriage, family and sexual ethics.

The Commission has failed to protect adequately the freedoms of Christians - and others who hold similar views - to express in the public square such historic and until very recently considered mainstream views. Indeed, the Commission increasingly encouraging the privatisation of the Christian faith and
Judeo-Christian values and opinions more generally."


Related Links: 
Statement in response to the proposed appointment of the EHRC Chair