Parliamentary committees highlight potential conflicts of interest in EHRC Chair’s appointment

The appointments process for the new Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission should have identified and addressed potential conflicts of interest, according to two reports which express concerns that those conflicts of interest could still produce problems in the future.

The reports by the Women and Equalities Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights relate to their Pre-Appointment Hearings held in March which concluded that the new head of the EHRC, David Isaac, was a good candidate, but that he had conflicts of interest between his role and his position as a senior equity partner at law firm Pinsent Masons which should have been identified in the selection process.

The Women and Equalities Committee said there was a lack of transparency in the initial stages of candidate assessment.

Committee Chair Maria Miller said: “The public appointments process needs to command the confidence of members of the public. MPs have been given a central role in scrutinising that decision-making yet some aspects of this are opaque.

“In this case the appointments panel did not document any discussion as to how Mr Isaac would balance his role as a senior equity partner in an international law firm with the role of Chair of the EHRC despite potential and perceived conflicts of interest and possible issues around the Nolan Principles. Records of further conversations between Mr Isaac and the Cabinet Office were also unavailable to the Committee.

“To scrutinise important appointment decisions House of Commons committees need basic facts. In this case these were not forthcoming. In our report, we recommend that the pre-appointment scrutiny guidelines be reviewed.”

She added: “David Isaac is clearly a good candidate, if he is able to demonstrate how he will manage the conflicts of interest inherent between his role as a partner in a law firm and chair of EHRC.

Isaac has said he will forego any of the Pinsent Masons profits attributable to Pinsent Masons’ advice to government, but Miller says not all of her committee’s concerns have been fully dealt with and is calling for ongoing scrutiny. There are concerns, for instance, if the EHRC has to deal with Pinsent Masons clients.

JCHR Chair Harriet Harman said: “It’s essential that the holder of that post should be independent and is seen to be independent…The Government need to learn lessons from the failure of their appointment process to identify this potential conflict of interest. It shouldn’t be down to select committees to identify such an obvious problem at a late stage in the process. The Government need to ensure in future that potential conflicts of interest affecting candidates for senior public positions are rigorously identified and addressed as a routine part of their recruitment, particularly for posts such as this where independence, including independence from Government, is so crucial to the role.”

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