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23 July 2019

EHRC rejects conflict of interest claim over Pinsent Masons partner

Left-wing UK daily newspaper attacks EHRC, citing Pinsent Masons partner who is chairman of watchdog, in Labour Party anti-semitism probe linked to refugee evictions, but firm rejects an old claim.

By Dr David Cowan

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The Morning Star reports that the official investigation into anti-semitism in the Labour Party is under mounting scrutiny after the paper revealed conflicts of interest at the top of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Old claim

In the finale of a five-part series EHRC says it is exposing how board members hold what one campaign group called a “deeply alarming” and “wholly inappropriate” set of business interests. At the heart of the claims, according to the Morning Star, is the EHRC chairman David Isaac who is  an equity partner at Pinsent Masons where he earns up to £620,000 a year. The paper says the firm is “one of only a handful trusted by outsourcing giant Serco to sit on its legal panel and represent its interests. This relationship swung into action at a recent court case in Scotland where Pinsent Masons successfully defended Serco against an unlawful eviction claim.” In a statement submitted to the Global Legal Post, Pinsent Masons responded “For comment on David Isaac’s role and responsibilities as the Chair of the EHRC, we refer you to the EHRC. We can confirm that David Isaac has not been involved in or profited from any work the firm has undertaken for Government since his appointment to his EHRC role in 2016.”

Refugee evictions

The Morning Star claim revolves around two Kurdish women refugees, Shaker Ali and Lana Rashidi, who are among hundreds of asylum-seekers across Glasgow relying on accommodation provided by Serco under a Home Office contract. Ms Ali says Serco evicted her without any legal process, while Ms Rashidi fears the same will happen to her too and says she suffered a miscarriage because of “the stress and mental anguish caused by the constant threats of eviction from [Serco].” The judge dismissed their case after representation by lawyers including Pinsent Masons. The paper reports the judgment alarmed the EHRC, which issued a press statement saying “We remain extremely concerned about Serco’s policy of locking people out of their homes without proper processes or safeguards.” EHRC highlighted the “harsh impact this has on the people affected, leaving them with nowhere to go and in a vulnerable situation on Scotland’s streets” and warned that it could breach human rights law.

Problematic perception

However, the Morning Star criticises EHRC for making made no mention of its own chairman working for Pinsent Masons. Although working for the firm defending Serco, he has recused himself from direct involvement in the litigation. Mr Isaac’s declaration of interests states he does not profit from his law firm’s work with “central government or its delivery arm.” Labour MSP for Glasgow Pauline McNeill said, “Although the EHRC did rightly condemn the behaviour of Serco it does sit uncomfortably that the law firm who represented Serco was directly linked to the chair of the EHRC,” adding “There may not be a direct conflict of interest but the perception may be that it is problematic for EHRC to have any link to Serco’s lawyers.” Ms McNeill’s comments echo comments made in 2016, when then-Labour MP Harriet Harman, who ran Parliament’s joint committee on human rights tasked with scrutinising the appointment of EHRC chairs, expressed her concerns about Mr Isaac’s suitability to lead the commission. She initially said then there was “obviously a conflict of interest” and noted that in 2015 his law firm had worked on “about 10 contracts with government, to the tune of about £5 million.” An EHRC spokeswoman rejected any suggestion of a conflict of interest, telling the Star “All of our board members bring a wealth of experience and have a strong track record of working on equality and human rights and corporate issues.”

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