The Equality and Human Rights Commission has failed as an organisation and if it were to cease to exist, most of the people it was created to support would not notice its disappearance, the distinguished equalities campaigner Herman Ouseley has said.

Describing the failure of the body as a tragedy, Ouseley said the EHRC “had failed the most vulnerable communities in our society” since it was created in 2007. It had no relevance to the lives of victims of discrimination.

“The people who are most disadvantaged feel totally disconnected. They don’t even know that the organisation exists, let alone believing they can turn to it and get the help that they need,” he said.

Lord Ouseley said he would be very sad to see the body shut down, but added that he did not think its closure would be widely noticed.

“If you closed it down for a lot of people it won’t mean anything to them because they’ll still have what they consider to be the status quo – which is very little access to proper advice and support to represent them in the area of inequalities,” he said.

Lord Ouseley, who was the chair and chief executive of the Commission for Racial Equality from 1993 to 2000, said he felt the previous system of separate bodies championing different equality agendas, which disappeared with the EHRC’s creation, had been more successful at championing people’s rights.

“It has lacked the leadership that has been necessary since its creation to take forward the equalities agenda. There was no passion and there still is no passion,” he said.

“I cannot see that the EHRC can in any way reach out to local needs among the population – on race, genderdisability, homophobia, and religious and age discrimination to enable people who feel they are vulnerable, who are being discriminated against, to receive the help they need: help in the form of advice, guidance, representation. All those things which existed pre-EHRC times, which are now almost totally gone, and EHRC seems to have no relevance to their lives.

“It has achieved a disconnection from people who are really suffering in our society … right across the board; I don’t think that those people would miss the EHRC if it’s gone because they have not had a relationship that has been meaningful or purposeful with the EHRC,” he said.

The culture minister Maria Millerin a recent letter to the Guardian, said the EHRC “had struggled to deliver across its remit or inspire confidence”. The body’s noble aims had “become lost in the mire”.

Lord Ouseley agreed with her assessment of the organisation’s record to date, but cautioned against concluding that closure was the correct response.

“I think Maria Miller was right in saying that the EHRC had failed to discharge its proper remit since its existence but I don’t think that was a justification for taking functions away and giving them to central government or abolishing them as they seem to want to do,” he said.

“It is important that we have a body, the EHRC or a body like it. I wouldn’t want to see us not having that body because the present arrangements are totally inadequate and not meeting the needs. I would like to see that body strengthened.”

The EHRC has seen its annual budget cut from about £70m to an expected £26m, and Lord Ouseley said this would make it harder to offer the support it should be providing to victims of discrimination.

“I am very sceptical about where the EHRC is going largely because it has had its budget decimated. That’s fundamental because it can’t do what it should be doing,” he said.

He was critical of the way the organisation was set up by the Labour government, which had managed to get race “off the agenda”.

“It was almost set up to fail and that in itself was a tragedy because we’ve wasted the best part of seven years in not getting it right and there is a very big risk that we are still not going to be able to get it right in the foreseeable future,” he said.

The consequences of having a poorly functioning equalities body were dire, he said. Individuals were uncertain about who they should turn to for support and employers were not being sufficiently monitored to ensure they were implementing equality legislation.

“Previously, people who run big organisations might have been concerned that the EHRC could come and knock on their door and question them about their failure to implement equality legislation. They’ve not felt that there is a new body that is likely to be knocking on their doors and asking them questions about their policies on equality. We do need to have that over-arching independent body that is … able to say we will take regulatory action, we will enforce the law against you where you are failing to conduct yourself in a lawful manner with regard to equalities.”

He also expressed concern about representation from minority communities at senior levels of the organisation, responding to news that commissioners Simon Woolley and Lady Meral Hussein-Ece (respectively the only black and Muslim members of the board) were not invited to reapply for their jobs in a newly slimmed down body.

“I think it is a tragedy for the commission because these were two very good people,” he said. “I am deeply concerned that the commission at a commissioner level should have representation from the minority communities.”

He said people who believe they are victim of discrimination “haven’t got a clue” where to turn. The weakness of the EHRC nationally was compounded by legal aid cuts which meant that organisations like Citizens Advice were less able to offer help on a local level, he said.

“That’s a sad indictment of our society in 2012 that you’ve got a situation where people, whether they’re male or female, black or white, gay or straight, old or young are actually struggling to know who to turn to for advice. Many people are giving up and putting their heads down and despairing. We’ve lost a lot of good resources on the ground and we’ve lost the opportunity through an established, national, independent body to give guidance, direction and leadership on this to make people feel confident that they can challenge unfair treatment,” he said.

Mark Hammond, the chief executive of the EHRC, said: “It is not fair to suggest that there has been no impact from our work. Our landmark legal victories have significantly increased protection for disabled people and their families.”

He also pointed to work on protecting the victims of hate crime, work with care providers to safeguard elderly people’s rights, and with police forces to reduce the disproportionate use of stop and search powers against thnic minorities.

The Guardian by