The news this week that for the third year in a row there are huge problems with financial control at the Equalities and Human Rights Commission raises questions not only about the future of its senior management but also about the paucity of political debate over its future.
There have only been three sets of annual accounts since the EHRC was formed – and each time the National Audit Office has refused to approve them so deep are the problems with the EHRC’s financial (non-)control.
It’s a perfect record: three sets of accounts, three sets of problems:
In 2008, a year after the EHRC was formed, the NAO qualified its accounts after it appeared that jobs had been given to members of a predecessor organisation run by its chair Trevor Phillips without the appropriate processes being followed. Last year the 2009 accounts were qualified after irregularities were discovered in payments totalling £1.1m to consultants, in procurement and in grants to small organisations.
But [the NAO's] verdict on the 2009-10 accounts questions spending of around £2m. Staff were given pay rises that were not authorised by its parent Whitehall department, the Government Equalities Office. … The commission had no centralised procurement processes and relatively junior staff were allowed to sign off large contracts without approval. [The Guardian]
Three years of such financial mismanagement has not been sufficient to see its chief Trevor Phillips either resign or be sacked.
However, it also highlights the paucity of the debate over its future which can be summarised as:
Government: EHRC isn’t providing value for money, so we’re going to cut its funds
Labour and others on the left: Appalling! Any cut is an attack on the least well off!
In that respect, far too many Labour politicians and others reflect the worst sort of mistakes that far too many pro-Europeans (including, yes, some Liberal Democrats) make over Europe. That is to be so blindly enthusiastic as to turn a blind eye to financial mismanagement and repeatedly pass on making even the most tepid expressions of mild concern that money is not being used quite as well as it might.
In fact, I had a look through recent comments from Labour MPs about the EHRC and the current budget plans and I couldn’t find even one expressing the slightest caveat that maybe it needed control its money a little better whilst also arguing against cuts to its budget.
I’m sure (well, I sincerely hope) there are some that I’ve missed as I didn’t do a check of every single public statement, but the overall pattern was pretty clear.
Failing to look after public money three years in a row was no reason for serious complaint.
They’re wrong. It is.
The EHRC has repeatedly failed to use our money properly to help those it is meant to serve. Blowing over £800,000 on a website that didn’t work is but one of many examples of its financial failures.
Genuine concern for helping victims of discrimination doesn’t mean simply judging the government’s commitment by the level of budgets. Big budgets badly spent don’t make for good government or effective action against discrimination.