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Lib Dems hold key but which way will they turn?

by Lester Holloway

CHARLES KENNEDY'S Lib Dems hold the key to the government recognising race in the new equality super-body.

Stumbling block: Lord Anthony Lester QC
Stumbling block: Lord Anthony Lester (above) is “bored” with demands for a race committee

Government sources have privately indicated they are willing to respond to growing pressure for black representation within the proposed Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR).

But ministers are only likely to peform a u-turn if the Liberal Democrats soften their stance and not oppose plans to include a race committee as part of the new single equalities body.

In October Lib Dem peer Lord Anthony Lester opposed amendments put forward by former CRE chairman Lord Herman Ouseley for a CEHR race committee.

The government, which has been battered by recent defeats in the upper house, is unlikely to risk a further loss over the question of black representation.

Following pressure from race campaigners and Labour MP Diane Abbott Blink has learnt that ministers would now back a backbench amendment in the Lords if Charles Kennedy's party supports it.


The Lib Dem leader has told Simon Woolley of Operation Black Vote that he is “supportive” of calls for a CEHR race committee and race commissioners on the board.

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy: he holds the key to black representation in the single equalities body.

But Mr Kennedy will have to convince Lord Lester QC, who is against what he terms the “Balkanisation” of the single equalities body.

Lib Dem party president Simon Hughes and Mr Kennedy will not want to be seen as the politicians who denied race representation to Britain's black communities in the new body.

Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Ms Abbott has blasted the present plans as “a betrayal of the black community… which is taking race relations back 30 years.”

It is understood that assistant whip Parmjit Dhanda, who helped represent the government on the Equality Bill standing committee, is keen to see race recognised in the CEHR's structure.

Gloucester MP Mr Dhanda is believed to have spoken to equality minister Meg Munn over the issue. Newly-elected Labour MP for Tooting Sadiq Khan is in favour of a race committee.


Mr Kennedy is believed to have said he was “agreed in principle” to a race committee but would consult with key figures in his party before the Lib Dems officially changed their position.

Parmjit Dhanda
Government whip Parmjit Dhanda supports calls for a race committee in the single equalities body.

Lib Dem Lord Lester said he would be “astonished” if the government softened their stance.

He said talk about a race committee was “the most boring subject in the entire world.”

“It's for the new commission to decide its committee structure when it's in place.

“It's important they appoint first class people who are independent; know what they're doing and have professional expertise.”

Race and other equalities subjects covered by CEHR needed to be tackled “within the mainstream, not sidelined”, he added.

Senior Lib Dem peer Lord Navnit Dholakia said he hoped the single equalities body would give “particular emphasis” to tackling racism but did not want to be “prescriptive” about what committees it should have.


Dr Evan Harris, the Lib Dems human rights spokesman, said: “I think it is extremely unlikely that the commission would not have proper representation from ethnic minority communities.

“But they were never meant to be representatives and I don't think it's appropriate to denote one commissioner to be this, and one commissioner to be that.”

Race campaigners such as OBV disagree, claiming that the experience of local government shows that equality mergers push race down the agenda.

The new body will see the Commission for Racial Equality axed and merged with the current commissions covering disability and gender, and with the new areas of sexual orientation, age, religion and human rights.

The 1990 Trust has argued that combining all subjects together in an “equalities mush” would be a serious and regressive step backwards on race equality.


In a letter to BME MP's and those MP's in seats with high black populations, Mr Woolley wrote: “The feeling amongst BME communities is unprecedented in favour of a statutory Race Committee.

“In fact a recent poll showed that 83% of those asked stated that the UK was still a racist society adds to the BME communities concern.”

In a letter to equality minister Ms Munn yesterday, Barbara Cohen of the Discrimination Law Association, wrote: “It is the view of the DLA that the CEHR would be a stronger and more effective body, with wider public support, if it were also required to establish committees for each of the other grounds covered by the equality enactments.

“The experience of the DLA informs our view that the CEHR should not function or attempt to function on the basis that ‘one size fits all’, as this is clearly not the case. Discrimination on different grounds is experienced differently, often takes different forms and can have different origins.”

Earlier this week race was the word that dare not speak its name in Westminster as MP's on the Equality Bill standing committee addressed virtually every area except race.

Amendments on topics ranging from the equalities implications of people with transgender status and sexual harassment in the workplace to the rights of the disabled to demand housing adaptions were discussed.

The only amendment dealing with race, proposed by the Conservatives, was rejected at the first committee session last week. Tories proposed a minimum of one CEHR board member for race and the other equalities subjects covered by the new body.

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