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Opposition to single equalities body grows

By Lester Holloway

Opposition was mounting today over Labour’s plans to scrap the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).

Shahid Malik
Shahid Malik: the wrong time for an equalities merger

Trade minister Patricia Hewitt will announce tomorrow (Thursday) a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

But race campaigners fear that race equality will slip down the agenda if the CRE is merged with gender, disability, sexuality, religion and age.

Former CRE commissioner Shahid Malik told blink this was the wrong time to introduce these changes.

He said the CRE was only just getting to grips with their responsibilities to ensure 40,000 public bodies complied with the Race Relations (Amendment) Act by producing race equality plans.

Malik said: “My issue is, who is going to monitor them?”

He is likely to be joined by others who will question why Labour is pressing ahead with the changes just three years after the last race law was passed which the CRE were meant to implement.

Others go further and believe proposals for a single equalities commission are likely to be a ‘logistical nightmare’ and a ‘dogs dinner’.

Campaigners fear it will be near impossible for the new body to juggle numerous separate equalities laws covering race, disabilities and gender.

And there are likely to be fears that adding religion, sexual orientation and age discrimination into the mix will increase the chances of internecine disputes between competing equalities lobbies.

Such a scenario could paralyse the new single equalities body, and set back work on race.

Simon Woolley, head of Operation Black Vote, said it was ironic that the race equality agenda was being diluted at a time when a BBC documentary had just lifted the lid on racism in the police force.

He added: “This looks like a logistical nightmare. Potentially people are going to be at each others’ throats over scarce resources.”

Another activist put it more bluntly “Just wait ‘til the first row between gay rights people and Muslims in the new organisation. That’s just one of hundreds of potential flashpoints.”

There is suspicion the government will offer scant detail tomorrow, despite discussion within government circles for around three years.

It is expected that the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) will announce a task force to work on the detail, but many grassroots campaigners believe they will be carved out of it.

The DTI revealed today there would be no press conference on the announcement – only a written statement to parliament and a short press release.

Questions remain over whether the surprise announcement was timed to be ‘lost’ amid the media frenzy over Conservative Party troubles.

Woolley said: “There is a feeling that this new body is being put together to save money and save setting up new commissions [on religion, age and sexuality].”

Shahid Malik said the government announcement was badly timed. And with the new race law only three years old, and Malik believes “it isn’t a good time to be merging them.”

He added: “This is an incredibly difficult time as far as race is concerned. You’ve got the government department targets on recruitment, retention and promotion which need to be monitored. We’ve seen recently evidence that the police still have a long, long way to go.”

Malik said the government was ‘putting the cart before the horse’ because a single equalities body was being introduced without a single equalities law. He said: “It cannot work effectively without a single equalities act.”

He said the single equalities commission is inevitable but “there needs to be healthy resistance to the proposals.”

Opposition to the new body is also likely to increase amongst disabilities groups, who have only had the Disabilities Rights Commission for two years.

However sources say the real winner is the Equal Opportunities Commission, who see women’s equality issues being boosted by the new body, especially as it reports to trade minister Patricia Hewitt, the most prominent campaigner for women’s rights in government.

Rita Patel, chief executive of the Belgrave Baheno Women’s Organisation, said: “The worry is everything gets watered down to the lowest common denominator.

“The CRE doesn’t have much teeth even now, and I’m not convinced this new body is the way forward.

“Don’t just lump us all in one commission. You have to be prepared to treat different equality issues with the gravity and seriousness they deserve.”

**Earlier today the 1990 Trust released a statement detailing it’s opposition to the single equalities body.

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