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Single equalities fudge fails to sweeten sceptics

by Lester Holloway

A LAST minute government sweetener on single equalities body plans has left a bitter taste in the mouth of black groups. As speculation mounts that CRE chair Trevor Phillips is to back the merger, critics say black communities remain as opposed as ever.

Trevor Phillips: Signing up?
Trevor Phillips: Signing up to merger?

The government announced plans today for a merger of race, sexual orientation, disabilities, age discrimination, religion, gender and human rights into a single commission.

In July the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), which faces abolition if the scheme goes ahead, voted to reject the new merged Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). CRE chairman Trevor Phillips described it as 'the wrong proposal at the wrong time.'

But just four months later Phillips and the CRE have softened their stance following eleventh hour concessions last Thursday by trade minister Patricia Hewitt. Ministers offered the sweetener of extra powers to enforce equalities law, and gave the CRE the option of staying out of the new body until 2009.

Unimpressed: Karen Chouhan
Unimpressed: Karen Chouhan

But critics of the single equalities plan are unimpressed with what they describe as minor concessions, and say they will not be brought off so easily.

Sceptics reminded the government that black communities overwhelmingly rejected the government's 'Fairness for All' White Paper and would also give the sweeteners a big thumbs-down.

Karen Chouhan, chief executive of The 1990 Trust, said: “We carried out a huge consultation across Britain and black communities gave a clear unambiguous message that they do not want this single equalities body.

View the DTI's statement on changes to the CEHR proposals

Responses to the Changes

“Single Equalities Body still a dog's dinner”
by Karen Chouhan, Chief Executive, 1990 Trust

The CRE's Response to the DTI statement

The Equality and Diversity Forum welcomes the progress..

“We are fully prepared to carry out a new consultation to ask what black communities think about the and minor changes that the government have been made. I strongly believe that these communities would be less than impressed. They would still say 'no to the CEHR.”

An internal DTI paper in September revealed that black communities where not only the single largest group to respond to the White Paper, but where also overwhelmingly against the plans.

The report said: “Led by the CRE and the 1990 Trust, respondents from BME organisations were generally opposed to the CEHR, believing that race equality would not be best served through a single…body, and that the necessary focus (including resources) would be lost.”

Sceptics say that even if the CRE now comes on board, it is the views of black communities which matter. Such communities are unlikely to be influenced by a u-turn by Trevor Phillips, and would remain as hostile to the merger as before.

Simon Woolley: We're being offered crumbs
Simon Woolley: We're being offered crumbs

Simon Woolley, head of Operation Black Vote, said: “I don't think we are seeing the clear-cut victory that Trevor Phillips seems to think it is. We have seen some changes but I don't think it's nearly enough. Why do we have to accept a merger in order to gain more enforcement powers? The government should just give the CRE more powers, end of story. It's crumbs.”

In last minute changes, the DTI now plan to make a new CEHR publish a 'state of the nation' report on what progress is being made towards equality.

The government will not restrict legal help to just 'test cases' as it originally proposed. The DTI also said it wants the new body to be able to conduct 'named inquiries' into organisations that are suspected of discrimination.

The CRE said the concessions were a “welcome start but only a small part of the picture.” A statement said: “This improved proposed legislation has some way to go before we feel that the scourge of inequality is truly being addressed.

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“We are keen to sustain dialogue with ministers to ensure that the final shape of any equality legislation in the future tackles some of the chronic, deeper causes of discrimination in Britain.”

But some believe that the government's concessions have proven enough to bring the CRE back on board, and that if the single equalities law is passed and the CEHR comes into existence in January 2007, the CRE will be axed and merged with the new body two years later.

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