Ian Acheson

The equality watchdog’s probe leaves Labour with a painful choice

The equality watchdog's probe leaves Labour with a painful choice
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Today’s confirmation that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is launching a formal investigation of the Labour party has huge personal significance for me. I was the chief operating officer for the Commission between 2012 and 2015, responsible for redesigning the approach to statutory enquiries and investigations. I also had a role in making the Commission a warmer house for Jews.

The EHRC I joined was not an organisation beloved of the state. Unfortunately this was not a function of its fearless independence, more that it wasn’t taken terribly seriously with a poor reputation amongst ministers. Budget cuts and obsessive introspection by some staff who regarded the body as a pressure group for leftist causes had seriously imperilled its very existence.

Gradually, the organisation recovered ground. Sharper focus and staff turnover have resulted in a transformed Commission led by an outstanding chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath, my former colleague. Enforcement action by the EHRC has resulted, amongst other things, in better protection for gig economy workers, the striking down of fees for employment tribunals, better safeguards for looked after children and the ending of gender segregation in religious schools. The list is long and impressive. This is a serious organisation.

While I was at the EHRC, I felt for some time that in terms of our enforcement activity, Jewish people seemed absent from the large number of individuals and organisations who routinely asked for help. Reaching out to the Jewish Community Security Trust, meetings with the Board of Deputies and Jewish student leaders helped ensure that Jews knew the country's equality watchdog had their interests at heart too. I am sure this building of trust and confidence has been instrumental in today’s landmark decision to investigate Labour, apparently on the basis of evidence submitted to it by Jewish organisations.

The commission is not light on lawyers. In consideration of whether to use the wide ranging enforcement powers of the Equality Act 2006, it has probably spent long hours forensically examining the depressingly mountainous evidence of anti-Semitism within the Labour party. Given the huge sensitivity, even pre-enforcement action is very significant and suggests that the commission’s lawyers and retained barristers are confident there is an arguable case that Jewish people are being unlawfully discriminated against by Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Let that sink in for a minute.

It appears that the EHRC has been in discussion with the Labour party prior to this public announcement. This is routine. The commission’s approach will be to give an organisation it intends to investigate the opportunity to respond to allegations, admit wrongdoing and put matters right. Pre-enforcement activity will also allow the Labour party to access advice and support from the EHRCs experts to correct systems or processes that might be the cause of the alleged discriminatory activity. It might even be able to advise Baroness Chakrabarti on how to conduct an effective review. If this route fails and the commission still suspects unlawful behaviour, it can instigate a formal ‘section 20’ investigation with powers to compel the party to disclose all the information, records and emails it requires. If discriminatory practice is confirmed on the balance of probabilities, a range of options are available to it including unlawful act notices that would require the Labour party to undertake compulsory changes to stop unlawful activity.

Given just how excruciating it must be for the party that gave birth to the EHRC to now find itself being formally investigated by it, if any cool heads remain in Labour HQ, the best that can be hoped for is a formal ‘agreement’ and an action plan that avoids the embarrassment of legal enforcement. An agreement means, in effect, that Labour acknowledges it has discriminated against Jews and is making an undertaking to voluntarily change its ways. In electoral PR terms however, that’s the choice between hanging and firing squad.

Given the sullen resistance of much of Corbyn’s Labour inner circle to even admitting it has a problem with how it sees and treats Jews inside the party, the third option is, of course, to play the long game and refuse to admit any culpability at all. That might be superficially attractive to those who think paddling in the sewer of violent extremism and anti-Semitism won’t harm Labour’s electoral chances with their base.

But consider this: having persisted in the delusion that Labour's Jewish problem is a confected smear, they have now become only the second political party to ever be formally investigated for discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, religion or belief in this country.

The first? The BNP.