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Equality Commission's David Isaac told to 'keep an eye' on conflicts of interest

Published 09/05/2016

Harriet Harman said David Isaac was qualified for the post
Harriet Harman said David Isaac was qualified for the post

The City lawyer appointed as the new head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) must "keep an eye" on any potential conflicts of interest, an influential parliamentary committee has said.

David Isaac was appointed as the head of the equality watchdog despite concerns expressed by MPs and peers about his plans to remain an equity partner at his law firm, which is involved in a range of government work.

Although he has now put in place arrangements to ensure he will not profit from government work carried out by his firm Pinsent Masons, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said there was still a "potential problem" if any of the firm's private sector clients are subject to EHRC action.

JCHR chairwoman Harriet Harman said: "Both the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Women & Equalities Committee considered that, overall, David Isaac was a good candidate for the post of chair of the EHRC.

"However, it's essential that the holder of that post should be independent and is seen to be independent.

"There was evidently a potential conflict of interest between David Isaac's continuing financial interests as a senior equity partner in Pinsent Masons and his role as the independent chair of the EHRC.

"After JCHR and the Women & Equalities Committee raised this with him in our pre-appointment hearing on March 23, he has moved to address this problem by foregoing any of the Pinsent Masons profits attributable to Pinsent Masons' advice to government.

"But bearing in mind that Pinsent Masons has a wide range of other clients who might come into the ambit of the EHRC at some future date, Mr Isaac will need to keep an eye on any further conflicts of interest that may arise in the future, as will the Joint Committee on Human Rights."

Ms Harman added that the Government needed to learn lessons from the "failure of their appointment process to identify this potential conflict of interest".

The Women and Equalities Committee called for Mr Isaac to provide more information of how he will deal with the potential problems with his new role within a month.

The MPs criticised the selection procedure and questioned the working of the current public appointments process.

Chairwoman 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.

"Personally I welcome the fact that someone of Mr Isaac's private sector experience has put himself forward for a position such as this.

"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.

"We are pleased that Mr Isaac has now taken steps to reduce the potential for conflict and perceived conflict, but as we have noted in our report, not all of the concerns have been fully dealt with.

"We will therefore continue to monitor the situation as part of our wider responsibility to scrutinise the equalities work of the EHRC."

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