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EHRC Exposed Part 1: Fears over conflicts of interest at top of watchdog probing Labour anti-semitism

DOUBT has been cast over the entire investigation into anti-semitism in the Labour Party as the Morning Star reveals conflict of interest fears going right to the top of the equalities watchdog tasked with carrying out the probe.

Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) chairman David Isaac receives substantial sums of money from a law firm that advises the Conservative government, the Star has discovered.

Mr Isaac is paid £500 for each day he does work for the commission, but his main job is as an equity partner at City law firm Pinsent Masons.

The company, whose recent clients include the Ministry of Justice, published its annual results on Thursday, showing that profit per equity partner was an eye-watering £620,000.

Mr Isaac will have received a lesser amount because he has undertaken “not to advise government clients of Pinsent Masons while he holds the role of chair of EHRC, and not to receive profit as an equity partner from work conducted by that firm on behalf of the government.”

He made that solemn promise in 2016 after a grilling from none other than Labour MP Harriet Harman, who runs Parliament’s joint committee on human rights — tasked with scrutinising the appointment of EHRC chairs.

Ms Harman expressed extensive concerns about Mr Isaac’s suitability to lead the commission.

She initially said there was “obviously a conflict of interest” and commented that his salary at the law firm, which was then around half a million pounds, “dwarfed” whatever money he would receive from the EHRC.

Ms Harman noted that in 2015 his law firm had worked on “about 10 contracts with government, to the tune of about £5 million.”

She said that although that amount “might be peanuts as far as your overall firm is concerned,” Mr Isaac should not profit from government contracts held by Pinsent Masons while he chaired the EHRC.

Even after Mr Isaac offered to ring-fence government income to his firm, “such that I do not directly receive any benefit,” the committee still harboured concerns.

Fellow Labour MP Ruth Cadbury said: “This country has become very hair shirt about conflict of interest and takes a very literal view of what is and is not a conflict of interest.

“In my mind, what you are describing about your relationship … still feels like something that will come back to hit not you or I but the EHRC.

“I want the EHRC to be as strong and as robust an organisation as it can be.

“You are proposing that you are still going to be a partner of PM [Pinsent Masons]; you are still going to be part of that gang, that team, which is proposing to continue working for the government.”

NO CONFLICT?

Indeed, Mr Isaac’s double role as a City lawyer and human rights watchdog has posed potential conflicts of interest.

At an EHRC board meeting in January, Mr Isaac recused himself from the commission’s investigation into the BBC.

“David Isaac noted that the law firm in which he was a partner [Pinsent Masons] acted from time to time for the BBC on matters unrelated to equal pay,” the minutes said.

“Although the board was content that this did not represent a substantive conflict of interest, there was concern that there could be a perception of bias and, therefore, David Isaac agreed to recuse himself from determination in relation to this matter.”

At that same meeting the board discussed a potential probe into anti-semitism in the Labour Party and commission chief executive Rebecca Hilsenrath reminded colleagues that she was “an active member of the Anglo-Jewish community.”

The minutes go on to record: “Although the board was content that this did not represent a substantive conflict of interest, there was concern that there could be a perception of bias and therefore Rebecca Hilsenrath agreed to recuse herself from determination in relation to this matter.”

By the time Ms Hilsenrath stepped down, the EHRC had been in receipt of the Campaign Against Antisemitism’s request to open a statutory investigation into Labour for over two months.

The EHRC had already made some “progress” on the matter and when Ms Hilsenrath stepped aside, the board agreed it was the chairman, Mr Isaac, who should “provide direction” to the commission on the next steps regarding “an investigation into anti-semitism in the Labour Party.”

They went on to announce publicly in March that a probe was being contemplated before officially launching one in May.

A spokeswoman from the EHRC told the Star: “Our chief executive has not been involved in any of the decision-making regarding the opening of this investigation.”

Last week, that probe escalated dramatically following the broadcast of BBC Panorama’s controversial documentary Is Labour Anti-Semitic?

Many of the people who spoke to the BBC are also repeating their allegations to the commission.

Although Ms Hilsenrath distanced herself from the probe ahead of its launch, her views about alleged anti-semitism in Labour are already well known.

She hit out after the party’s annual conference in 2017, tweeting from the EHRC’s official account: “Anti-semitism is racism and the Labour Party needs to do more to establish that it is not a racist party.

“A zero-tolerance approach to anti-semitism should mean just that.”

She went on to say: “The leadership should take swift action. It is simply not acceptable to say they oppose these views … more needs to be done to root out anti-semitic views that clearly exist in the party.”

Antony Lerman, former founding director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, has previously raised concerns that such a statement made Ms Hilsenrath unsuitable to lead a probe into Labour.

“Prior to investigation, is it not worrying that the CEO already claims to know what the Labour Party needs to do?” Mr Lerman wrote in an article for political website OpenDemocracy.

And anti-corruption campaigner Andrew Feinstein was alarmed when the Star shared its findings with him.

“Immediately it raises very serious concerns about conflicts of interest,” he said.

Mr Feinstein is executive director of Corruption Watch. Born in South Africa, he served as an African National Congress MP under President Nelson Mandela.

His mother was a Holocaust survivor who lost 39 members of her family in the nazi camps and he has lectured at Auschwitz on genocide prevention.

“As someone who works as an anti-corruption campaigner and is active in the debate over anti-semitism in the Labour Party, my concern about the EHRC inquiry is that it was launched without any context,” he explained.

“Only a very small percentage of Labour members hold anti-semitic views and a YouGov poll in 2015 found Labour displayed the second least amount of any political party, second only to the Liberal Democrats.

“In 2017, two years into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the extent of anti-semitism in Labour had actually dropped, according to polling.

“So why would the EHRC decide to investigate Labour, when the polls showed it had actually dropped, and not probe the Conservatives or Ukip, whose members displayed more anti-semitism?

“If this was to be a useful inquiry, it would be anti-semitism, Islamophobia and racism as a whole in British politics, but to single out the Labour Party suggests an institutional bias.

“And then for the EHRC’s chief executive to recuse herself, immediately the question becomes what role did she play in deciding to set it up?

“On top of that, the chairman is earning significant amounts of money in his professional life from a firm that advises the UK government.

“Many people are already concerned and this only makes me more so.

“Coming so soon after the BBC Panorama programme, which was one of the most inept hatchet jobs by a public broadcaster anywhere in the world, it raises serious questions about motivation.”

Mr Feinstein added that he hoped the EHRC will hear evidence from Jewish members of Labour who are opposed to all racism, but who contest the perception of the party as having a unique problem with anti-semitism.

An EHRC spokeswoman defended their investigation, saying: “We have robust procedures and policies in place to manage conflicts of interests or perceived conflicts of interests.

“Anyone with a conflict of interest will not be working on our investigation into the Labour Party.

“Our chair has no conflicts of interest regarding this investigation.

“Since taking up his role as chair, David Isaac has not been involved in or profited from any work for government departments or political parties.

“This arrangement was put in place during his appointment process.”

Pinsent Masons was approached for comment.

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