The government’s appointment of a supporter of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy to the equalities watchdog has prompted a fierce backlash among equalities campaigners.
The writer and journalist David Goodhart, who is head of immigration and integration at the right-leaning Policy Exchange thinktank, has been selected as a commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which is currently investigating the Home Office’s implementation of its hostile environment immigration policies.
In recent articles Goodhart has praised the measures introduced by the then home secretary Theresa May to combat illegal immigration, and argued that they should not be watered down in the wake of the Windrush scandal, which saw thousands of people who were legally resident in the UK wrongly prevented from working, travelling, and accessing free healthcare.
His writing on race and immigration has often attracted the attention of equalities campaigners. Goodhart has described complaints of systemic racism as “statistically naive” and argued that “white self-interest is not same thing as racism”.
His appointment has intensified concern about diversity within the EHRC’s senior management. Currently eight out of nine commissioners are white and there are no black commissioners; that proportion will fall to 10 out of 14 when four new commissioners and a new chair start work in December. News of the appointment came the day that parliament’s joint committee on human rights published a report concluding that the EHRC had failed “to provide leadership and gain trust in tackling racial equality”.
“For the EHRC to be, and be seen to be, effective black people must be represented at the top level of the organisation, including as commissioners,” the report warned.
Halima Begum, director of the race equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust, said Goodhart’s appointment had “completely eroded her confidence in the EHRC”.
“At a particularly sensitive moment in our nation’s social history, Mr Goodhart’s comments around the government’s hostile environment immigration policy and Black Lives Matter offer no reassurance of his empathy, understanding or impartiality on the issue of racial equality.”
She was also dismayed about the lack of diversity among commissioners. “If you do not have black representation in 2020 it really raises questions about the government’s ability to understand the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement.”
A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain said: “If the government is serious about tackling racism and discrimination, then it would appoint credible figures known for fighting and experiencing racism. We do not think Mr Goodhart has either of these characteristics. His selection follows a long line of government appointment of individuals who either oppose or are sceptical of anti-racism efforts.”
The Institute of Race Relations tweeted: “The appointment of David Goodhart as an EHRC commissioner, who has in the past attacked diversity and opined about the need to understand ‘majority grievances’, suggests the very real danger of an end to a progressive equalities agenda in this country.”
Goodhart has criticised “victim status” among minorities and in an article headlined “White self-interest is not same thing as racism” argued: “Modern liberals tend to believe that preference for your own ethnic group or even your own nation is a form of racism. Conservatives regard it as common sense and resent being labelled as racist.”
Goodhart responded to the Guardian by email: “I am a journalist and before being appointed an EHRC commissioner I did write about the Windrush Scandal and always described it as a shameful episode. This was not the so-called ‘hostile environment’ working, it was an egregious error. The real question is how we make status-checking fair, given that people who don’t look or sound like the majority will potentially be discriminated against. I look forward to contributing to the debate about how we create such a fair and transparent system.”
A spokesperson for the government’s equalities department said an independent panel had selected a shortlist of candidates for commissioners and presented them to Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, who made the final choice. “The new EHRC commissioners were chosen as part of a fair and open competition. We are confident that they will help the EHRC carry out its important work,” the spokesperson said.
• This article was amended on 19 November 2020. From December, 10 out of 14 commissioners will be white, rather than 10 out of 12 as an earlier version said. This amounts to a decrease in the proportion of white commissioners, not a rise as previously indicated.