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Rights groups attack Blair's favourite for equality chair

by Marie Woolf

THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY has reported that Black leaders fear Phillips will not be critical enough of government .

This article appeared in the IoS on 6th August 2006.

It was billed as a “super equality body” that would help break down all forms of discrimination. But Tony Blair's plans for a flagship body on inequality have been hit by a behind-the-scenes battle over who should be its chairman.

Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), is regarded as Tony Blair's favoured candidate. But black and gay leaders fear that Mr Phillips, a New Labour supporter, will not be critical enough of the Government.

Concerns have been expressed to the office of Ruth Kelly, the cabinet minister in charge of establishing the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) next year.

The new chair is expected to be chosen by Ms Kelly and the Prime Minister from a shortlist drawn up by an independent panel within six weeks.

Lee Jasper, secretary of the National Assembly Against Racism and race adviser to the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said: “We are deeply unhappy about the rumour suggesting that Trevor Phillips will be chair.”

Simon Woolley, head of Operation Black Vote, said: “What race equality needs more than ever is a firm hand to robustly challenge public bodies and private institutions.There must be a chairman with conviction that can steadfastly stand up to government.”

While head of the CRE, Mr Phillips faced criticism for claiming that “multiculturalism is not working” and that Britain was “sleepwalking” into segregation.”

He also suggested black boys may need to be educated separately and criticised the decision to establish a super human rights quango. He negotiated a deal meaning the CRE would not join until 2009, but then applied for the top job.

Milena Buyum, of National Black Alliance, accused him of reducing the number of discrimination cases the CRE supported.

She said: “The near disappearance of legal representation for race cases by the CRE since 2003 doesn't bode well for the CEHR. Nor does a record of attacks on multiculturalism, undermining the work to eradicate institutional racism.”

Herman Ouseley, a former CRE chair, said the new body needed a totally independent leader.

Gay leaders also expressed fears about Mr Phillips' record on gay rights.

Peter Tatchell, of OutRage!, the gay rights group said: I wrote to him about lyrics that incite murder of gays and lesbians by some black singers and suggested that the CRE co-ordinate a round table meeting with the black and gay communities to have come to an agreement about challenging racism and homophobia. I never got a reply, despite reminders.”

Dr Katherine Rake of the Fawcett Society, which promotes women in public life, said: “What we are looking for is someone with a track record on gender.”

Criticism of Mr Phillips, a former TV executive, has been posted on the black information website Blink, run by the human rights organisation the 1990 Trust.

A poll of black communities found that 40 per cent backed Shami Chakrabarti, the head of Liberty, to take on the job, compared to 3 per cent for the CRE chairman.

The trade union leader Margaret Prosser is also believed to have been shortlisted. But the human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy, who was urged to apply for the job, has not done so.

Mr Phillips was unavailable for comment but the CRE confirmed that he had applied for the position. They said that it was a “personal” matter.

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