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CEHR “a step backwards” says Diane Abbott

by Diane Abbott MP

LABOUR MP Diane Abbott, writing in The Guardian today, says the proposed single equalities body is a backward step for race equality.

 - quote - The government's flagship policy for fighting inequality will soon take shape in the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR).

But most black people regard its emergence, and the abolition of the Commission for Racial Equality, as a step backwards for the politics of race. This view is strongly held, despite the fact that the CRE has been functionally useless for 20 years.

Black people hold this view partly because there is a deal of sentimental regard among us for the CRE. It emerged following the era of Martin Luther King and the American struggle for civil rights, and is bathed in the same rosy glow.

It absorbed many of the brightest of the earliest generation of black community activists, and it comes hard to the well-brought-up working-class West Indians (that most of us are) to disrespect our elders.

Above all, the constant attacks on the CRE by racists have forced black people to rally around it on the principle that “my enemy's enemy is my friend”.

There is every reason for black people to fear that race will be marginalised in the new organisation. The taskforce set up to advise government on its development had 25 members, but only three from visible minorities.

In a debate on the new body in parliament, hardly any MP of any party mentioned race. Disabled people will have a disability commission and a disability commissioner.

Black and Asian people have no such guarantees and no specific funding. It will have weaker powers than the CRE in some areas. Above all, while the CRE has an annual budget of £20m, the CEHR will have a budget of £70m.

And this is supposed to cover discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, religion, age and sexual orientation, plus institutional support for human rights – things do not look good for black people.
But there are arguments for the CEHR.

David Blunkett was said to be vehemently against it. And the case for a single, unified equalities structure, with a single point of contact for the public, is unanswerable. It is true that many good people fought for racial equality under the banner of the old CRE and its predecessors.

But as an institution, it has been crippled by its closeness to government. Among the big race issues of recent years have been the government's shameful treatment of asylum seekers; Belmarsh; and control orders.

All of these impact most brutally on racial minorities, and on all of them the CRE has been eerily silent. Instead, it has concentrated on attacking multiculturalism and a sub-Blunkett agenda of “citizenship” and “integration”.

These themes avoid conflict with government, and lay the blame firmly with black and Asian people for their own plight. A lot could still go wrong with the CEHR. It needs to be properly funded.

There must be structural protection for work on race. And putting it in Manchester, when more than half of Britain's black and minority ethnic people live in London and the south-east, is plain silly.

The “war on terror” makes this a frightening time to be black or Asian. It was purely fortuitous that the Tory MPs David Davis and Dominic Grieve were prepared to take the Tory party through the lobbies with the Labour left to defeat the 90-day detention plan.

Under David Cameron, the Tories would give unswerving support to the government's anti-civil-liberties agenda. With the CRE busy complaining that white people will not invite us to their dinner parties, it may prove to be that human rights and the rule of law are the best protection black and Asian people have.

So, with one last respectful nod to the history of struggle the CRE represents, we must throw our lot in with the CEHR and hope for the best. - unquote -

Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. This article first appeared in The Guardian

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