‘Conflict of interest’ lawyer to chair EHRC, as minister ignores MPs’ concerns


The government has appointed a commercial lawyer to chair the equality and human rights watchdog, despite MPs raising serious concerns about a potential conflict of interest caused by his firm’s work for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

The Government Equalities Office (GEO) announced this week that David Isaac had been chosen to be the next chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), just days after two parliamentary committees refused to approve his appointment.

The joint committee on human rights and the Commons women and equalities committee said last week that there was a “serious potential conflict of interest” relating to Isaac’s role as a partner at the law firm Pinsent Masons, which has a “significant amount of business with the government”, including DWP.

They also warned that appointing Isaac – a former chair of the gay rights charity Stonewall – as EHRC’s chair could put at risk the commission’s prestigious “A” status as a national human rights institution.

As a result of their concerns, and following a hearing at which Isaac gave evidence, the two committees said they were “unable to recommend that this appointment should proceed”.

Despite that conclusion, the education secretary Nicky Morgan, who is also minister for women and equalities, this week confirmed her decision to appoint Isaac as EHRC’s new chair, following what she described as a “rigorous appointment process”.

Earlier this month, Disability News Service (DNS) reported concerns at the government links of both Isaac and EHRC’s disability commissioner, the disabled Tory peer Lord [Chris] Holmes, as the commission prepared to investigate whether Conservative welfare reforms have breached the human rights of disabled people.

Isaac has specialised in his work at Pinsent Masons on providing advice on “major public and private sector UK and global commercial and outsourcing projects”, but the company has refused to tell DNS which outsourcing projects he has worked on for DWP, leading to the possibility that he could have been involved in some of the reforms EHRC will now be investigating.

In a letter to the chairs of the two committees this week, Morgan said she was “satisfied that any potential conflicts can and will be addressed”, that Isaac would not receive any profits as an equity partner from work carried out by Pinsent Masons on behalf of the government, and that he would not be involved in advising the firm’s government clients while he remained as EHRC chair.

Morgan said in a statement: “I’m thrilled to offer David Isaac the position of chair of the EHRC.

“David Isaac has an impressive track record and brings a range of experience both from his work on LGBT issues and human rights and as an experienced lawyer.

“We are confident that in his role as chair of the EHRC he will be a strong and effective advocate for equality and human rights in Britain.”

Isaac said in a statement: “I am delighted to have been offered this important role which is fundamental to driving equality and human rights in England, Scotland and Wales.

“I look forward to further discussions with the EHRC with the intention of accepting the role in due course.”

The two committees will now publish a report following the evidence hearing and the exchange of letters, and were not able to comment this week about Morgan’s decision to proceed with Isaac’s appointment.

GEO declined to comment on the decision to ignore the committees’ concerns and appoint Isaac.

EHRC also declined to comment on the decision to appoint Isaac, despite the concerns about conflict of interest.

But the commission’s interim chair Caroline Waters said in a statement that she was “confident that David Isaac has all the skills, experience, commitment and integrity needed to lead the commission”.

28 April 2016

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