Kay Hampton, a veteran anti-apartheid activist and former chairwoman of the Commission for Racial Equality, resigned from the EHRC last week, ostensibly because of a heavy workload. But, in an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, she revealed the real reasons for being the latest senior figure to part company with EHRC, whose chairman is Trevor Phillips (pictured right).
"I was going to go quietly but I want to set the record straight," Ms Hampton said. Speaking of her frustration at the lack of progress made by the organisation, she said: "I don't walk away from sinking ships but I walked into one. I was increasingly disillusioned and unhappy."
Commissioners are being "shamefully underused" by the organisation's leadership and those who ask questions are not listened to, she claimed. "There are a number of people who are unhappy but are too terrified to speak to anyone. I do believe people are being threatened and harassed. Some are scared that they will be labelled racists if they actually speak out."
Ms Hampton does not disguise her criticism of Mr Phillips, whose part-time role pays him £110,000 a year.
This controversy comes days after it emerged that the EHRC's annual report has been delayed following the disappearance of £30,000-worth of laptops. And it is barely a week since the shock resignation of chief executive Nicola Brewer, and the departure of its director of strategy, Patrick Diamond. In the meantime, EHRC commissioner Sir Bert Massie is "considering his position", according to a spokesperson from his office.
Despite average salary rises of 25 per cent over the past year, morale among staff is said to be at rock bottom. Less than half think that they are treated with fairness and respect. And less than one in five thinks it's safe to speak up. The figures are from an internal staff survey carried out in November 2008, in which 64 per cent of staff felt that the commission was failing to practise what it preaches. In a statement, the EHRC admitted staff had been affected by "the enormous amount of change over the past 18 months". There have been 45 grievances and employment tribunal claims since October 2007.
Mr Phillips has been accused of divisive management policies by some current and former members of staff and has become embroiled in a series of controversies in recent months. Questions arose last year over a potential conflict of interest when it emerged he had been paid through his company, Equate, to compile a report on diversity for Channel 4. Although Mr Phillips has resigned his directorship and doesn't receive salary or fees, he has kept his majority shareholding.
Ms Hampton said yesterday she was particularly concerned that some commissioners have been afraid to speak out for fear of being called racists. "What's happening now is a witch hunt. The EHRC is being run with fear and paranoia. I myself received a call from Trevor earlier this week in which he implied that the whole thing is people having a go at him because of who he is ... because of the colour of his skin. But it's not about the individual. It's about the management and leadership style."
But supporters of Mr Phillips rallied to his defence yesterday. One commissioner, Kay Carberry, said: "Reports of disarray and widespread discontent are nonsense. I'd say the overwhelming majority of commissioners support Trevor." Another commissioner, Kay Allen, called him a "consummate professional". But one commissioner, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted: "Sometimes I want to head-butt him [Mr Phillips]. He's an entrepreneur so he's always going to rub people up the wrong way."
The EHRC would not comment on Ms Hampton's claims directly, but said when she resigned she had "stressed that she was a friend of the commission". It added: "We will have our critics, in an area as complex as ours we would expect nothing less", but stressed that its record of achievement gives it a "firm foundation" for the future. The organisation denies that there is a problem at the top: "There is no evidence of 'unrest' among staff at the commission in relation to Trevor's style of leadership."
Mr Phillips was not available for comment last night.
Commission in crisis: Dissent at the top of the EHRC
Addressing staff after news broke of Nicola Brewer's resignation, he hinted at the difficult relationship he had with her, saying: "Any chair of any serious organisation knows that a good CEO is not the same thing as a compliant CEO."
An experienced diplomat, she resigned in March after two years as chief executive, and just days after controversially suggesting that saying equal pay reviews should not be mandatory during a recession.
Increasing disillusionment with the way the EHRC is being run led to the resignation of this commissioner. She claims a climate of fear has made staff too scared to speak out. She remains a member of the Scottish Human Rights Commission.
Sir Bert Massie
The disability rights campaigner recently voiced his concerns about the EHRC: "I am concerned that the work has not been going as fast as it should be. There is a general unease about the direction of the commission."
Left his post as director of strategy after 19 months, without working his notice. A former adviser to Lord Mandelson, he has been lured to No 10 to work with Gordon Brown on the strategy for a new Labour government.
The Independant on Sunday, 5th April 2009