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War of the equalities

By Lester Holloway

A cabinet minister has said proposals for a new single equalities body could lead to rivalries between competing equalities lobbies

Patricia Hewitt and Tony Blair
Breakfast meeting with Patricia Hewitt and Tony Blair © Image by Matt Dickens

That gloomy prediction comes from the minister responsible for overseeing the merger of the three existing bodies into a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR).

Trade minister Patricia Hewitt she recognised the danger of the internal battles between personalities fighting for race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, disabilities and human rights.

Hewitt told a specially-invited audience at 10 Downing Street yesterday morning (Tuesday) that she was aware of potential flash-points such as clashes between the gay rights lobby and the religious sector.


But she expressed hope that open warfare could be avoided. She wanted to avoid a ‘GLC’ situation, referring to the old Greater London Council which was run by Ken Livingstone until it was abolished in 1986 by the then PM Margaret Thatcher.

“There will be clashes, but we’ve got to get the culture right”, Hewitt said. “We don’t want it to be like the GLC”.

Proposals for a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights means the abolition of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the Disability Rights Commission and the gender-specific Equal Opportunities Commission (EoC).

The merging of these bodies will be complicated by the new CEHR embracing sexual orientation, age discrimination, religion and human rights.

Critics say the proposals threaten to become an ‘unworkable mess’, with competing equalities lobbies fighting each other for scarce resources and priority.


Sceptics also argue that the new single equalities body won’t work without a single equalities law because current legislation covering one area is so different from another – for example race is dramatically different from laws covering disability discrimination.

Hoever Hewitt believes that a single equalities act would not necessarily introduce a ‘clean and legal framework’.

Lord Ousely
Lord Herman Ouseley

Lord Herman Ouseley, a past CRE chairman, has criticised government proposals for putting the emphasis on promotional work rather than enforcing the law.

As Hewitt announced the proposals on 30 October, Lord Ouseley told Blink: “If we’ve got legislation that isn’t capable of being enforced effectively because the body are busy doing promotional work, and are fudging their responsibilities under the law, then it won’t work.

“The vast majority of people who discriminate on grounds of whatever do so because they know they’re not going to be caught.

“I would think that a single equalities body has to be clear that it will get on and get after those people who are discriminating, and not be bogged down with promotional activity and campaigns.”


Lord Ouseley is unlikely to be reassured by comments Hewitt made in Downing Street hinting that enforcement was not a priority.

Asked about what priority the enforcement of equality law would be undet the new set-up, Hewitt responded: “Enforcement will not be the only role of the commission.”

Government consultation on the proposals found 72% supported ‘enforcement’ powers with 41% backing ‘promotion’ work.

Hewitt’s comments will infuriate critics who claim Hewitt and her Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) are accused of a ‘stitch-up’ by excluding critical voices from the taskforce set up to work through the detail of how the new CEHR will operate.

Hewitt has so far not found time for an interview with Blink despite announcing the biggest shake-up in equalities since the CRE was created in 1976.


The biggest supporters of the new body include Trevor Phillips, chair of CRE, Julie Mellor, head of the EoC, and the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations (CEMVO).

However race campaigners believe that CEMVO’s passionate support for the single equalities body does not reflect majority opinion in black communities.

Simon Woolley, head of Operation Black Vote, believes that most black people will be angry about seeing hard fought for gains on race disappear as the CRE is merged with other equalities areas.

He said the experience in local government of race committees and units being merged with other equalities areas was that race slipped down the agenda.

There was nothing in the governments’ proposals to reassure people that this same situation will not also happen at national level in the CEHR.

Other activists argue that some supporters of the new body are Labour cronies manoeuvring for position.


Woolley said the single equalities agenda had been ‘hijacked’ by civil servants and human rights lobbies close to Labour ministers.

“They’re setting the agenda from their ivory towers”, Woolley said. “My worry is that the people most affected by this are not setting the agenda.

“[Government] has forgotten is why we came to the streets to get these bodies established in the first place. Its’ start and finish is in a political vacuum. But we start and we finish in our communities.

“We’ve fought hard to have black people speak for us, and we’re not prepared to give it up lightly.”

Woolley added: “We are seeing a groundswell of distrust for this body which the architects, including senior politicians, are not addressing.”


Political lobbyist Mendora Ogbogbo, who runs Parliamentary Contacts, said: “You just can’t bundle all of these different equalities areas together. People who are proposing this obviously have no idea of how dramatic racial discrimination is.

“Discrimination against women or disabled people is a big problem but they are all specific and distinct in their own right. Each area needs a separate focus.”

Bert Massie, chairman of the Disability Rights Commission, has told BBC radio 4’s Today programme that the proposals were not “fully thought through.”

Other critics claim that the government’s original consultation was flawed because it only presented options for change rather than give people a choice to stay with the status quo of keeping the existing separate commissions.

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