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Government facing JR over equality advice helpline contract

G4S ‘manifestly ill-equipped to provide advice on discrimination and human rights,’ says Liberty

6 September 2016

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The government could face High Court action if it does not set aside the contract it has awarded to G4S to operate the national discrimination advice helpline, a UK charity has warned.

The Law Centres Network (LCN) has sent a letter before action to Whitehall seeking a new tender process, correcting faults in the previous one. LCN argues that the government failed to properly assess the shortcomings of the Equality Advisory and Support Service (EASS) with stakeholders.

In a string of allegations, it claims that the government did not properly consider how to reform EASS with the independent equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Whitehall was further criticised for failing to consider G4S’s equality and human rights record in the many other public services it has delivered. As a large employer, the LCN claims, G4S also faces a conflict of interest in providing a service that its own employees might want to consult.

Daniel Carey, a solicitor at law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn, acting for the LCN, said: ‘This case concerns the legal duty on the government to assess the equalities impact of procurement decisions.

‘One would expect a high degree of compliance where the Government Equalities Office was the decision maker and the service being procured was an equalities advice line. We have written to the government and G4S on the LCN’s behalf and a response is anxiously awaited.’

Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy at the LCN, said the possible legal action was about ensuring access to justice for some of the most disadvantaged and often vulnerable people in society.

‘It is already difficult for people to access appropriate advice on discrimination and human rights, which are complex areas of law. Our concern is that government does all it should to ensure that the most suitable provider is chosen, and that the service is effective.’

Parliamentary inquiry

Liberty and forty other human rights and equality campaigners, including LCN, have today voiced their concerns over the choice of G4S to deliver the service. These concerns are raised in a joint letter sent by charity Liberty to the chairs of the Women and Equalities Select Committee (Rt Hon Maria Miller MP) and the Joint Committee on Human Rights (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP).

In the letter, Liberty said the tendering process ‘lacked openness’ while ‘the procurement specification… appears to have been seriously flawed’.

It accused G4S of being ‘manifestly ill-equipped to provide advice on discrimination and human rights’ and backed the Equality Act and Disability Select Committee’s recommendations for the EASS to be returned to, or be managed by, the EHRC.

The letter comes as the House of Lords is set to discuss EASS this afternoon as part of its debate on the report. The government has rejected this recommendation without explanation according to LCN.

Enclosed with the letter was a dossier that highlighted the serious allegations and findings against G4S. These include the ‘systemic failings which contributed to the unlawful killing of Jimmy Mubenga by G4S staff, the repeated inspection findings of racism and sexism among G4S staff, and harrowing official reports of G4S mistreatment of children, pregnant women, and other protected groups’.

An online petition initiated by SumOfUs.org against awarding the EASS contract to G4S has attracted over 51,000 signatures so far. The global consumer watchdog has also been raising funds to support this legal action.

Sondhya Gupta, senior campaigner with SumOfUs.org, said the decision to award G4S the contract was ‘a kick in the teeth to everyone who faces disability, race, or sex discrimination’.

In response to any forthcoming judicial review, G4S said: ‘We would welcome and support any review of the tendering process for the EASS helpline, which in our view was conducted very openly, professionally, and competitively.

‘We were awarded the contract on the strength of our work handling other complex call centres including the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) child maintenance options service. We have supported that helpline for separating parents over the past three years and feedback from callers and the DWP has been positive.

‘We will bring that experience to the Equality Office’s advisory service and ensure that our team has the knowledge, skills and training to provide clear, supportive and practical advice to people who turn to this helpline when they are concerned they have been discriminated against.’

The government is expected to respond to LCN’s initial letter by Thursday, 8 September 2016. Based on its response, LCN said it will consider its next steps.

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equality discrimination government human rights