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Big-guns blast single equalities body

By Lester Holloway

Some of the biggest names in race relations have blasted the government’s plans for the biggest ever shake-up for Britain’s equalities bodies.

Lord herman Ouseley
Lord Ouseley: ‘this new body is a fudge’

Lord Lester

Lord Lester: ‘independence not cronyism’.

Fears are increasing that the new single equalities body, officially announced today, could be a crony-filled PR-machine rather than a hard-hitting body that prosecutes organisations that discriminate.

Lord Herman Ouseley, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), expressed concern that the new single equalities body looked like it was geared up for promotional work, not law-enforcement.

Under government plans the CRE will be axed, in favour of merging it with the gender-specific Equal Opportunities Commission (EoC), and the Disability Rights Commission.

The new Commission for Equality and Human Rights will also cover religion, sexual orientation and age discrimination.

Speaking to, Lord Ouseley said: “From what I understand is going to be announced I think that this body is a fudge.

“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.”

Criticism of the proposals from Lord Ouseley, who has a high level of respect for his work at the CRE, is sure to wound government who are known to be sensitive about criticism.

The changes were announced by government trade secretary Patricia Hewitt this morning in a written statement to Parliament, but carried very little detail about how the new single equalities commission is going to work.

Instead, a task force is to be set up to add meat on the bones of the announcement, which has been discussed in Whitehall circles for the last three years.

Hewitt has not agreed to interviews, and at present questions about the equality body’s independence and law enforcement powers remain unclear.

A DTI press release had ‘enforcing anti-discrimination legislation’ bottom of a list of six general priorities which includes promoting diversity and respect and delivering better services. However a DTI spokesman said: “I wouldn’t read anything into that.”

Lord Anthony Lester of Herne Hill told blink he was worried about cronyism in appointments to the new single equalities body.

The Liberal Democrat peer said: “It must be completely independent of government. Independence, independence, independence, not cronyism. It’s no use picking people who are ‘one-of-us’, Labour cronies.”

The single equalities body is believed to be enthusiastically supported by current CRE chairman Trevor Phillips and EoC chairwoman Julie Mellor.

The gender lobby is expected to be the biggest winners in the merger, with sources saying the EoC is “absolutely desperate” for the move to go ahead.

The new body will report to Hewitt, known as the most prominent advocate of women’s rights, but there are concerns that she has not been vocal enough on race equality.

Campaigners fear that race will slip down the agenda compared to other equalities subjects.

Milena Buyum, coordinator of the National Assembly Against Racism, said: “At local level every time race has been combined with other equalities issues, race has disappeared. The specialised approach disappears.

“You can’t mainstream equalities while your organisation is racist. You may say the right things publicly, but when it comes to changes it just won’t happen.”

In a statement today Hewitt said: “We consulted widely on how best to achieve our vision of a fairer, more inclusive and prosperous Britain and concluded that a single body to cover all equalities is an important step forward.”

The new body is expected to start work in 2006, when a European law called Article 13, comes into effect, which forces governments to provide discrimination protection for age, sexuality and religion.

Yesterday Simon Woolley, head of Operation Black Vote, said he believed the latest developments were a cost-cutting measure to save the government the expense of setting up new separate commissions and laws covering those subjects.

With so many different equalities areas, Lord Ouseley predicted ‘internal wars and people fighting for supremacy and positioning themselves’.

He also stressed the ‘absolute’ need for the body to be independent of government, but felt the government would probably ignore criticism.

Lord Lester – a key architect in the original 1976 Race Relations Act that created the CRE – revealed he had proposed a law this year to bring in a single equalities act, which was essential before a single equalities body could work. He said the government were ‘putting the cart before the horse’.

And he expressed disappointment that Labour voted it down in the Commons, despite the Bill getting approval from the Lords.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone is believed to oppose moves to axe the CRE and merge it into a single equalities body.

Lee Jasper, race advisor to the mayor, told “The government’s proposals constitute a massive withdrawal from the principles set out in the Race Relations Act, and the Macpherson report.

“Robust enforcement of powers are absolutely critical. These proposals as they currently stand will result in a rise in racism and reduce the numbers of victims of discrimination being able to access support or redress.”

Experts believe the Disabilities Rights Commission (DRC) – which has only been in existence for three years – is more sceptical than the CRE or EoC. They are pushing hard for the ‘strand’ approach of keeping distinct sections specific to particular equalities areas within the new single equalities body.

Greater London Action for Disabilities also believe budgets should be ring-fenced for equalities areas, so the organisation’s priorities are not dominated by ‘the flavour of the day.’

see also:

Black think-tank says no to Single Equalities Commission

Opposition to single equalities body grows

DTI and DCA press release (DTI website)

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