The new chair of the equality watchdog has taken up his new post, despite question-marks over potential conflicts of interest arising from his legal firm’s work for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and other government departments.
David Isaac took up the post of chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) this week, as the watchdog prepares to investigate whether Conservative welfare reforms have breached the human rights of disabled people.
But Isaac is a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, which has a “significant amount of business with the government”, including DWP.
And he has specialised in his work at Pinsent Masons in providing advice on “major public and private sector UK and global commercial and outsourcing projects”, although the company has refused to say which outsourcing projects he has worked on for DWP.
This week, he refused to comment when asked by Disability News Service (DNS) how he could head an investigation into the human rights implications of DWP welfare reforms on disabled people, when he appears to have been involved himself in delivering some of those reforms at Pinsent Masons.
He took up his post after two parliamentary committees, the joint committee on human rights (JCHR) and the Commons women and equalities committee, appeared to back down over their concerns that his appointment would cause a “serious potential conflict of interest”.
Harriet Harman, the Labour MP who chairs JCHR, said it was “essential that the holder of that post should be independent and is seen to be independent”, but that he had “moved to address this problem” by refusing to take any profits from Pinsent Masons’ advice to the government.
Isaac has also promised not to advise government clients of Pinsent Masons while he is chair of EHRC.
Both committees said the measures Isaac had taken “go a considerable way towards satisfying our concerns”.
DNS has asked Harman whether the committee now believes Isaac is a suitable appointment, at a time when EHRC is about to investigate whether DWP breached the human rights of disabled people as a result of welfare reforms he might have been involved in.
Harman had not responded by noon today (12 May).
The two committees also pointed out that Isaac had still not addressed the “significant” issue of potential conflicts of interest arising from Pinsent Masons’ work for private sector clients which may be subject to EHRC investigation or enforcement action.
The committees had previously warned that appointing Isaac as EHRC’s chair could put at risk the commission’s prestigious “A” status as a national human rights institution.
DNS has also discovered that when Isaac applied to chair the watchdog, he told the government that he did not believe he had any “actual conflicts of interest”, despite his work for the government, although he said he would declare his previous role chairing the gay rights charity Stonewall and his current trusteeship of the Human Dignity Trust.
Meanwhile, EHRC has published its strategic plan for 2016-19.
Isaac, who will be paid £500 a day for up to 100 days’ work a year for the commission, said the plan “sets out an ambitious programme of work over the next three years that will improve the lives of people across Britain”.
He said: “The commission must be a strong and independent expert body that drives change to make Britain fairer, tackles discrimination, and promotes equality of opportunity and human rights.”
He added: “It underlines our commitment to bring about change and puts a particular emphasis on driving further improvements where national governments must do more to deliver the speed of progress required.”
He also said he wanted the commission to “step up its work and be more ambitious in driving change to promote equality of opportunity and combat discrimination against disabled people”, and that “the government in particular needs to raise its game to improve the lives of disabled people”.
12 May 2016